Thanks to protests by two commercial space companies, NASA’s plans for sending American astronauts back to the moon by 2024 have been put on hold — at least temporarily.
The National Team, a multi-company partnership spearheaded by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Alabama-based defence contractor Dynetics are both crying foul about a contract awarded to Elon Musk’s SpaceX last month for $2.9bn.
Both Dynetics and Blue Origin have filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA, with Bezos’s company accusing the space agency of having “moved the goalposts at the last minute”.
The highly coveted contract is for a Human Landing System (HLS) that will ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for NASA. But the pending litigation has forced the United States space agency to put the brakes on any work related to the contract until the GAO issues its ruling, which is expected to be announced by August 4.
“NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Monica Witt, a NASA spokesperson, said in a statement.
Right now, it’s unclear whether the delay will cause NASA to miss its 2024 goal. But it has already heated up a space battle between SpaceX and Blue Origin that has been raging for years — with Musk openly taunting fellow billionaire Bezos locker-room style on Twitter. Here’s how the feud started — and what’s at stake.
Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2021
Race to the moon
NASA is planning to send people back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo days as part of its Artemis moon programme. But this time, it will rely on commercial partners to develop some of the necessary hardware — a first for deep-space missions.
Last year, NASA gave three teams a total of $967m and 10-month contracts to develop a potential lunar lander.
SpaceX, the National Team (a partnership between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics were all vying for a piece of the human landing system pie.
To kick off the competition, NASA awarded SpaceX $135m, while Dynetics received $253m and Blue Origin received $579m.
NASA was then expected to choose two of the three teams based on several factors, which included the cost and technical merit of their proposed landing systems.
SpaceX bid $2.89bn, while Blue Origin came in much higher at $5.9bn and Dynetics was higher still, but its official bid amount was not disclosed.
Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest-ranked, receiving a technical rating of “marginal”, whereas both SpaceX and Blue Origin received an “acceptable”. However, Dynetics’ management rating of “very good” was on par with Blue Origin’s, while SpaceX was ranked “outstanding” in that category.
If NASA had moved forward with its original plan of choosing two companies, they would have most likely been SpaceX and Blue Origin, based on pricing and technical merit.
The agency was never required to choose two companies; however, in other major programmes, NASA has selected multiple providers to help foster competition and provide redundancy in case one does not deliver.
But NASA has struggled to gain the budget it needs to properly fund the Human Landing System programme, requesting $3bn for the project from Congress, but receiving only about 25 percent of that, according to a budget analysis by the nonprofit Planetary Society.
Kathy Leuders, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, said such a limited budget forced the agency to select only one provider for now.
“I do not have enough funding available to even attempt to negotiate a price from Blue Origin that could potentially enable a contract award,” Leuders told Al Jazeera.
NASA was left to select the most cost-effective and technically feasible option.
“It’s not a surprise that NASA decided to go with the lowest-cost proposal,” Casey Drier, chief advocate at The Planetary Society, told Al Jazeera. “But at the same time, SpaceX scored very high on its technical and management reviews, which also contributed to this selection.”
In their protests filed with the GAO against NASA, both Blue Origin and Dynetics claim the agency gave SpaceX an unfair advantage.
That’s because the agency had to ask SpaceX, which was the lowest bidder, to revise its payment schedule to align with NASA’s budget.
In its protest filed with the GAO, Blue Origin alleged NASA had allowed SpaceX to renegotiate its price without extending the same opportunity to the National Team, whose proposal was already significantly more expensive than SpaceX’s.
“Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company wrote in its protest, adding that it “could have and would have” reduced its price or proposed schedule alternatives if given the opportunity by NASA.
The company also argued that NASA was playing favourites in its evaluation of SpaceX’s Starship. SpaceX is currently one of two companies that is contracted by NASA to send its astronauts to and from the International Space Station and frequently launches other spacecraft for the space agency.
SpaceX plans to use a variant of its Starship as the proposed human landing system, which Blue Origin claims is “incompatible with other US commercial launch vehicles, further restricting NASA’s alternatives and entrenching SpaceX’s monopolistic control of NASA deep space exploration”.
In its protest, Dynetics noted that it believed that NASA’s initial plan for the competition was the best path for the success of the programme and that there were other options the agency could have chosen instead of awarding the sole contract to SpaceX.
Dynetics argued NASA could have opened up the discussion to all of the offerors on how to amend the proposals to better suit the agency’s budget, something it only did with SpaceX.
“Dynetics has issues and concerns with several aspects of the acquisition process as well as elements of NASA’s technical evaluation and filed a protest with the GAO to address them,” the company told Al Jazeera in a statement. “We respect this process and look forward to a fair and informed resolution of the matter.”
Protests like Blue Origin’s and Dynetics’ are not uncommon when big contracts and billions of dollars are at stake, but according to GAO data, only 15 percent of protests submitted last fiscal year were sustained.
SpaceX did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, but Musk’s recent tweets would indicate that perhaps Blue Origin wasn’t selected because the company does not yet have a rocket that can reach orbit.
To be fair, SpaceX’s Starship hasn’t reached that mark yet, but the company has proved it can deliver astronauts, cargo, and satellites into orbit regularly.
The company successfully returned four astronauts safely back to Earth on Sunday following a 167-day stay on the International Space Station. This marked the end of SpaceX’s first long-duration mission for NASA and is one of three different crewed missions the company has launched for the space agency in less than a year.
Despite their recent collaboration, Drier said fears that NASA’s burgeoning lunar programme could be hindered by solely choosing SpaceX may be misplaced.
NASA is planning on flying astronauts to the moon via its own rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS). The massive launch vehicle will surpass the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo days in terms of power and will carry the agency’s Orion crew capsule up to a lunar outpost called Gateway.
The agency is also relying on commercial partners to build this mini space station, which would house astronauts and allow them to stay in lunar orbit for prolonged periods of time—something that wasn’t possible with the Apollo programme.
SpaceX’s role would be to provide a taxi service from Gateway to the lunar surface and back. But if Musk and his company can’t deliver the goods on time, it won’t stop NASA from actually reaching lunar orbit, because NASA will be using its own massive rocket to do that.
“Even if SpaceX falls behind [on the development of Starship], NASA will still have an independent method to send humans to lunar orbit and to the Gateway – both totally different programmes,” Drier explained.
As for NASA, the agency said it is still all about competition. The contract awarded to SpaceX is only for two missions: a test mission and an initial crewed mission. According to the space agency, anything beyond that will be open to further competition, which means the race to the moon is far from over.