Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force


Readers!
 
Scroll down to read this post.
 
For many reasons, mostly political but partly ethical, I do not use Google, Facebook, Twitter. They practice corrupt business policies, while targeting conservative websites for censoring, facts repeatedly confirmed by news stories and by my sense that Facebook has taken action to prevent my readers from recommending Behind the Black to their friends.
 
Thus, I must have your direct support to keep this webpage alive. Not only does the money pay the bills, it gives me the freedom to speak honestly about science and culture, instead of being forced to write it as others demand.

 

Please consider donating by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar below.


 

Regular readers can support Behind The Black with a contribution via paypal:

Or with a subscription with regular donations from your Paypal or credit card account:


If Paypal doesn't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

 

You can also support me by buying one of my books, as noted in the boxes interspersed throughout the webpage. And if you buy the books through the ebookit links, I get a larger cut and I get it sooner.

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

Share

13 comments

  • David

    The reason why the Air Force wanted to limit to two launch providers is obvious: they have complex, lengthy, and complicated certification process, and that complexity extends into each and every bid. They’d much rather bring one provider into compliance with their process and then stick with that, then have to break in a new company each time. Streamlining their process to remove that complexity is, of course, unthinkable.

  • Col Beausabre

    One point, when many complain about the government’s convoluted and lengthy procurement processes, only part of the blame should go to the agencies. In many cases they are forced into this so as to comply with the regulations passed into law by Congress (which gives them little to no latitude as to how to proceed). Like so many things inside the Beltway, the problems begin with people we send – and RESEND – to Congress. You want change, get new people in there who want to help drain the swamp.

  • Col Beausabre wrote: “Like so many things inside the Beltway, the problems begin with people we send – and RESEND – to Congress. You want change, get new people in there who want to help drain the swamp.”

    How right you are. The responsibility for this mess always falls back to the voters, to ourselves. We get the government we deserve, and right now what we are getting is exactly what the voters have wanted and demanded, for decades. And it isn’t pretty.

  • Juan

    Although I like competition as much as the next guy, it would really help BO’s case in my opinion if they would actually fly.

  • Diane Wilson

    Back in 2013, when BO contested SpaceX’s exclusive lease on Pad 39A, Musk was quoted: “If they do somehow show up in the next five years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”

  • David

    BO continues to be very quiet, and we’re all left wondering what, if anything, is happening out of sight. The latest rumor’s I’ve heard is that they are working on early test articles of the New Glenn booster structure, and encountering some difficulties. They are also working on facilities, notably the pad, some of which work is actually visible. Apparently they anticipate having a booster ready for test around the same time they have a pad to test it on. But neither of those events will be “soon” and might not be in 2020.

  • Richard M

    If I am not mistaken, however, this GAO ruling is not mandatory in its authority, is it?

  • Richard M

    Hello Diane,

    Wow. I’d never seen that quote from Elon before.

    It certainly has been proven correct, though….

  • mkent

    It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer.

    I don’t think it means that. Only part of Blue Origin’s protest was the selection of only two providers. If I’m reading things correctly, the GAO denied that part — that part and the part about allowing providers to offer a backup vehicle. The only part sustained was the source selection methodology.

    I’m still trying to make sense of that. The Space News article makes it sound like the GAO objected to the use of best value. But best value has a long and common tradition of use in aerospace solicitations and, if I recall correctly, the Congress explicitly mandated the use of best value in NSSL solicitations. Something must have gotten lost in translation somewhere.

    Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

    1) Because the market isn’t big enough to sustain more than two providers, and even that’s a stretch. The original solicitation was for only 25 specific launches over five years (though some sources are now quoting 30 launches). The overhead costs will drive per-launch costs through the roof or, if unreasonably low costs are locked in, drive the launch providers out of the business altogether. That will leave the Air Force with critical space infrastructure sitting on the ground and not serving the warfighter.

    2) Because the cost of certification is a multi-year eight- or nine-figure process. There’s no sense in going through that process for only one or a few missions.

  • David

    “Because the market isn’t big enough to sustain more than two providers, and even that’s a stretch.” That’s only if you assume “the market” to mean Air Force launches. Since they’re soliciting theoretically commercial capability, the built in assumption is that these potential launch providers are participating in the commercial satellite market, which is much larger. As opposed to the old way of things, where yes, what the Air Force wants to launch is pretty much your market.

    “Because the cost of certification is a multi-year eight- or nine-figure process. There’s no sense in going through that process for only one or a few missions.” Certainly not nine figures, and I’m not sure even 8. It could of course be far less, but that’s been discussed already. In theory once a provider vehicle is certified, they can keep bidding that vehicle for other solicitations and missions. Which of course is the direction we’d love to see it go, certify the vehicles, ideally for far less time/money in the certification process, then bid each launch to the whole group of certified providers. But that’s not the procurement world we live in.

  • Questioner

    Off-topic:

    Starship Mk1 is dead! Methane tank has exploded during cryo-tests. R.I.P. Mk1!

    Major setback for Musk?

    https://i.gyazo.com/93a7ec56047fd30a9cf11bd0aedb29cb.gif

  • Edward

    mkent,
    I agree that the article is confusing and virtually meaningless.

    The overhead costs will drive per-launch costs through the roof or, if unreasonably low costs are locked in, drive the launch providers out of the business altogether.

    This was the reasoning that caused the formation of ULA in the first place. This resulted in another pricing fiasco that was only relieved when SpaceX got approval to launch Air Force payloads. An advantage of competition.

    Because the market isn’t big enough to sustain more than two providers, and even that’s a stretch.

    The Air Force is not the only customer, anymore. Other customers will help distribute the fixed costs over a larger number of launches so that the price of an individual launch is kept low. An advantage of the free market.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Questioner,

    SpaceX says not and I’m inclined to agree. SpaceX was able to recover from the destruction of Crew Dragon 2 capsule C201 in just a few months, even though the cause was exotic and had to be extensively investigated, because it had several vehicles under construction behind C201 and could designate a new one to take C201’s place fairly expeditiously. Similarly, there are three other Starship prototypes in various stages of construction.

    The cause of Mk1’s cryogenic pressure test failure isn’t going to take nearly as long to autopsy in detail as did C201. The only mission Mk1 was slated to fly was the 20 km. “hop” intended to allow testing of the terminal “aerial ballet” landing sequence. SpaceX could still assign this mission to Mk2, nearing completion in FL- assuming it passes its own pressure tests and other pre-flight test procedures. It could also choose to wait until Mk3 and/or Mk4 – the six-engine versions that will be much closer to final operational configuration – are completed. Both are in early stages of construction in TX and FL.

    There is even the possibility of quickly running up just Mk3’s tankage and engine section, perhaps using salvaged mechanicals and rear “wings” from Mk1, and mating it to the nearly-completed upper half of Mk1 to make a “Mk2.5” that, perhaps, could fly the 20 km. landing test hop earlier than otherwise possible, though I think this is a long shot. I suspect a clear decision on this issue will await further progress on all three vehicles. Perhaps plans will firm up by, or even before, year’s end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *