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Blue Origin protests Starship contract award for lunar lander

Blue Origin today filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of NASA’s decision to award SpaceX’s Starship the sole contract for building a manned lunar lander, claiming the agency “moved the goalposts” during the award process.

Blue Origin says in the GAO protest that its “National Team,” which included Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, bid $5.99 billion for the HLS [Human Landing System] award, slightly more than double SpaceX’s bid. However, it argues that it was not given the opportunity to revise that bid when NASA concluded that the funding available would not allow it to select two bidders, as originally anticipated. NASA requested $3.3 billion for HLS in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal but received only $850 million in an omnibus appropriations bill passed in December 2020. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words kind of say it all. Blue Origin’s National Team put in a very high bid. Why should they have any expectation of winning?

Moreover, their track record, especially Blue Origin’s (the leader of the team), pales in comparison to SpaceX.

While SpaceX has now been routinely landing and reusing Falcon 9 first stages for more than five years, while also flying and demonstrating that they likely are only a short time from doing the same with Starship, Blue Origin’s development of their suborbital New Shepard spacecraft has slowed to a crawl during that same time period, while the development of the company’s only orbital rocket, New Glenn, has seen a two year delay that was likely likely caused because of problems with its BE-4 rocket engine.

Blue Origin’s complaint that NASA didn’t inform them that the agency could no longer afford awarding two contracts so they could adjust their bid price is also specious. The previous manager of NASA’s manned program, Doug Loverro, got in very big trouble for doing something similar when he called up Boeing to tell the company it needed to improve its bid in the first contract round for the lunar lander in order to have better chance of winning an award. It is not only unethical for the agency to play favorites in this manner during bidding, it is also illegal. When it was revealed Loverro had done this he had to resign, and is still facing an investigation that could in end up involving criminal charges.

The bottom line: Blue Origin’s bid was simply not as attractive. The only reason it might have been picked would have been if politics had made it possible. When the budget was no longer sufficient and NASA had to pick one company, the choice was obvious. SpaceX won.

Instead of filing protests, what Blue Origin and its partners need to do is to improve their game. Blue Origin especially has got to start flying spacecraft and rockets, for commercial profit, in order to demonstrate that they are a serious company that can actually accomplish something. Otherwise the business will continually go to others.

And as much as I routinely cheer SpaceX’s achievements, I sincerely mean it when I also demand success from Blue Origin. It is essential others start giving SpaceX a run for its money. We need competition and many successful companies in America’s space industry for it to achieve the most for the least in the fastest amount of time. Right now all of SpaceX’s biggest competitors are failing to do this.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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11 comments

  • PR

    The part about calling them up is more valid than you think. Lueders said in her selection document that NASA called SpaceX and asked them to revise their payment schedule (not the total amount, just how they received the money) to enable them to receive the award. as NASA did not receive even enough money to make even a single first year award given the payment schedules presented previously. She specifically stated she did not contact BO as their asking price was so high she had no hope of giving them an award in any case.

    This seems a valid legal argument (and potentially a successful one) by BO to get the award cancelled and then have it redecided with Nelson in charge and their Congressional allies in a full court press on NASA to at least split the money. Lueders should have called all the contractors, explained the situation, allowed them all to submit revised payment schedules and then selected SpaceX anyway. That would potentially have taken weeks though and I suspect she rolled the dice to get the decision over and done quickly before all the lobbyists got charged up.

    NASA will have to make the argument that they selected SpaceX on the merits and only after that selection was decided did they ask SpaceX to accept a revised payment schedule. Who wins? Was changing the payment schedule a change to the bid? There is a serious chance this will get pulled back and I expect everyone knew it at the time and decided to try it anyway. Having the award protested means Nelson will likely be in charge before a decision is made on the protest. We will see how committed to commercial crew he really is. I suspect not very.

  • Dick Eagleson

    This protest was made to the GAO, not to NASA directly. Nelson, therefore, will not be in the decision loop on GAO’s response to this protest. What Nelson seems most likely to do is cash in any outstanding markers he still holds from his time in the Senate, as well as exploit his past relationships in both the House and Senate to get supplemental appropriations sufficient to allow NASA to also offer an HLS Option A contract to National Team. Perhaps he can even arrange to make such a contract contingent on National Team abandoning its initial barely-meets-minimum-specs lander design and going directly to its notional much larger design being notionally readied for the Option B sustainable operations phase of the Artemis program.

    Anent Blue Origin’s prospects of prevailing with its HLS protest, it would be good to recall that Blue Origin also protested its lack of an award in the NSSL Phase 2 competition which awarded contracts to ULA (60%) and SpaceX (40%). Blue was unsuccessful with its NSSL protest and is, in my opinion, no more likely to be successful with this newest one. The decision on Blue’s NSSL protest came down fairly quickly as I recall – an indication that Blue made a very poor case. I think we are about to see another such decision, and perhaps even more promptly rendered.

  • Richard M

    Right now all of SpaceX’s biggest competitors are failing to do this.

    Well, except for Rocket Lab.

    But of course, for now, they only compete with SpaceX in a small mark niche. If they can build the Neutron, then they’ll compete with them across a somewhat larger spectrum.

  • PR

    Dick Eagleson: That’s helpful with the correctionthat it goes to the GAO. A supplement to the budget to enable a second award would be an excellent outcome. I remain less optimistic than you about the outcome of the protest though I admit my previous reasons seem to have been unwarranted. We will see.

  • David Birchler

    I think the point of not allowing direct competition being both illegal and unethical is a good one. I think whether or not the protests from National Team and Dynetics succeed will have a lot to do with the detail in how that process went down. If they both swear they would have adjusted comparably with the additional information and didn’t get the chance but SpaceX did, then they have a point. There were a lot of surprises in the source document for just about everyone.

    Of course, assuming the super heavy booster works as expected, SpaceX still has a revolutionary capability and will dominate in the long run.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Another thing that seems to be truly revolutionary is SpaceX’s apparent ability to build rockets in non-cleanroom conditions, and build them very rapidly. This is enabled by Musk’s “the best part is no part” design philosophy. I recall watching a video tour of the ULA booster factory in Alabama: it was operating-room clean and the build process was full of high tech equipment to get every last ounce of excess weight out of the alloys used in the hull. The highest tech in evidence in the dusty tents of the Boca Chica factory seems to be robot welders.

    As a tot I read the classic picture book where Mickey and Donald built a moon rocket in a field. Precocious little snot that I was, I knew even then that that would never work! I wonder if Elon Musk read the same book, and realized that’s how it HAS to work?

  • eddie willers

    Anent Blue Origin’s prospects….

    I noticed you used this word (twice) in your excellent post about [anent?!] China and Russia.

    I thought it was a typo and just kept reading along. Now that I saw you use it again, I thought, “Maybe it really is a word.” And, indeed, it is. It means concerning; about. Some say the word is Scottish and ‘archaic’, but I like what Merriam-Webster has to say about THAT:

    Anent looks like a rather old-fashioned word. It is, in fact, very old (an earlier sense of the word can be found in Beowulf, from approximately 800 A.D.), and at one point it was almost obsolete. It had nearly died out by the 17th century, but it was revived in the 19th century. Various usage commentators have decried “anent” as “affected” and “archaic.” It is not archaic, however. Although “anent” is rarely found in speech, plenty of examples of current use can be found in written sources. Dead words do occasionally rise from the grave, and “anent” is one of them.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight and thanks for adding to my vocabulary.

  • Diane Wilson

    BO also protested the decision to lease pad 39A to SpaceX. And lost.

    NASA did give BO a chance to adjust its bid, in relation to payment schedule. BO wanted up-front payments for kickoff milestones, which were expressly forbidden.

    Does Bezos actually care about Blue Origin any more?

  • Klystron

    Outside the fantasy world of government procurement, an astute purchasing manager in the real work would be asking ol’ Blue: “How did you just cut your bid by 50%? Were you going to party all the way to the bank on that extra $3B from your first bid?”

  • Edward

    From the article:

    Blue Origin argued that, by selecting SpaceX, NASA is jeopardizing the broader commercial space industry. “This single award endangers domestic supply chains for space and negatively impacts jobs across the country, by placing NASA space exploration in the hands of one vertically integrated enterprise that manufactures virtually all its own components and obviates a broad-based nationwide supplier network,” it stated.

    This does not seem to me to be a good reason to reconsider the bidding process. It seems less concerned with accomplishing the goal or finding the lowest cost and seems more concerned that NASA should be a national jobs program. Sometimes similar comments appear here on BTB, but I consider those people to be locked into the old, expensive, slow-productivity way of doing things.

    This statement from Blue Origin’s group, the National Team, makes me wonder whether Blue Origin is really thinking as a newspace commercial space company or as an oldspace company, out to milk the government for whatever it can get. Five or six years ago, Blue Origin had seemed to have a mission of finding lower cost, more efficient methods, starting with New Shepard’s reusability, and continuing with New Glenn. Some commenters have noted that Blue Origin hired some oldspace managers, a few years ago, and their progress on New Shepard slowed immediately. Blue Origin may have been further influenced by other oldspace partners on its National Team, such as Lockheed Martin.

    Ray Van Dune wrote: “Another thing that seems to be truly revolutionary is SpaceX’s apparent ability to build rockets in non-cleanroom conditions, and build them very rapidly.

    The former seems appalling, as it has long been known that contaminants can adversely affect a rocket’s ability to not explode spectacularly. It was not long ago that SpaceX had a problem with a small amount of contamination in one of its engines. But here they are, building their propellant tanks in the open air and storing their tank domes outdoors. But this does not seem to be affecting the performance of their Starship test units. What is the world coming to when HEPA filters, humidity controls, cleanroom garments and powder-free gloves, FOD (foreign objects and debris) walks, and the continuous cleaning of the factory are not necessary?

    I shudder every time I think about it.

    As for the rapid assembly of the rockets, well, no one ever needed to build much more than a dozen of each type of rocket per year. Before Falcon 9, it hasn’t been often that any given rocket type has launched more than a dozen times per year. In recent years, Falcon routinely exceeds 12 launches per year.

    Finding efficiencies, reducing costs, yet retaining effectiveness may seem like laudatory goals, but what is SpaceX doing to the launch industry and the space industry as a whole? Blue Origin’s protest tells us that they think this influence is bad.

    Can Blue Origin get in on this change, or has it already succumbed to the old ways of thinking?

  • Dick Eagleson

    eddie willers,

    You’re welcome.

    Anent, as you discovered, is a fine old word that is pretty much a straight replacement for the much longer and clunkier phrase “with respect to” which is 3 words, 12 letters and 4 syllables long in contrast to anent’s 1, 5 and 2, respectively. The three-letter acronym WRT, frequently used in texts, e-mails and Twitter posts is 1, 3 and 3 which means it still takes longer to say when spoken. I am, in any case, no great fan of texting-isms entering spoken speech.

    Granted, anent has a certain retro Game of Thrones-ish quality about it, but I think that’s a feature, not a bug. In an age of omnipresent rap lyrics that heavily feature a number of Anglo-Saxon words of roughly comparable vintage, I see nothing wrong in promoting a word that elevates the tone of whatever message incorporates it.

    The general tendency in both written and spoken language is for shorter and punchier words and phrases to supplant longer and more prolix ones. For some reason, this process has gone in reverse in terms of equivalents for anent. I do my poor best to reverse this unaccountable reversal of the usual linguistic entropy.

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