Since NASA awarded the contract to develop the lunar lander for the Artemis program to SpaceX, the drama swirling around it has included an appeal to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) from competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics, as well as calls from Congress for the space agency to reconsider its decision to move forward with only one proposal instead of two as originally planned and an amendment to an existing bill to allow for extra funding to cover the additional expense. NASA blamed the change in plans on lower-than-expected funding from Congress.
Now the GAO has denied Blue Origin’s bid to force NASA to reconsider its awarding of the contract to SpaceX, saying that it found no fault in the procedure used by NASA.
“NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award … the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms,” said GAO managing associate general counsel Kenneth Patton in a statement.
This allows NASA to move ahead with its plans for returning to the Moon with the Artemis Program. Since its competitors filed the appeal, SpaceX had been forced to officially pause its work on the lunar lander until a decision was made. The contract awarded to SpaceX for its Starship-derived lunar lander, officially dubbed the Human Landing System, is worth $2.89 billion.
The cost of SpaceX’s bid was reportedly far lower than its competitors for this contract. Blue Origin’s complaint included an allegation that SpaceX was allowed an opportunity to modify its bid that neither Blue Origin nor Dynetics had gotten.
NASA was upbeat about the GAO’s ruling, saying that it allowed the agency to move forward with putting together a timeline for the first crewed lunar landings since the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“As soon as possible, NASA will provide an update on the way ahead for Artemis, the human landing system, and humanity’s return to the Moon. We will continue to work with the Biden Administration and Congress to ensure funding for a robust and sustainable approach for the nation’s return to the Moon in a collaborative effort with U.S. commercial partners,” it said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Blue Origin told CNBC that the company still believes that “there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision … The GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction.”
According to the spokesperson, Blue Origin will still lobby Congress for an increase in NASA’s funding so that it can continue with two lunar lander proposals as originally planned. Jeff Bezos did send a letter to NASA offering to cover up to $2 billion in the costs of continuing to develop its lunar lander proposal if the space agency would reconsider. Dynetics has not yet issued a response to the ruling.
SpaceX characteristically didn’t issue a statement on the ruling, not that the appeal hurt it much in its relationship with NASA. Besides a contract to launch the first components of the Lunar Gateway, SpaceX will launch the Europa Clipper, which will send back valuable scientific data on one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, on a Falcon Heavy. It will also launch NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will search for water on the lunar south pole, as early as 2023.