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.
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