Blue Origin has filed a suit with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over NASA’s decision to award a lucrative lunar lander contract to SpaceX. The move is raising eyebrows, given Jeff Bezos’s past remarks about how such lawsuits hinder progress in space.
The private space company, owned by Jeff Bezos, filed its suit in an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” as a Blue Origin spokesperson explained in an email.
NASA had originally intended to award two contracts for the Artemis lunar lander, but Congressional cuts to its FY2021 budget precluded this possibility; NASA received $850 million of the $3.3 billion it asked for. Instead, NASA awarded a lone $2.89 billion contract to SpaceX in April. Blue Origin, along with its partners Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, were asking for a $5.99 billion contract.
Blue Origin, along with the other loser, Dynetics, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), claiming that the bidding process was unfair and that NASA was obligated to award multiple contracts. The GAO disagreed, saying the space agency’s “evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms,” as it articulated in its July 30 report.
Not ready to admit defeat, Bezos wrote an open letter to NASA Bill Nelson in July, saying he’d waive all payments up to $2 billion in exchange for an extended HLS contract. The company also launched an infographics war, detailing what it perceives as deficiencies in the SpaceX solution, namely the unproven Starship platform.
Elon Musk has responded in kind. Earlier this month, the SpaceX CEO tweeted an unflattering photo showing a deflated mock-up of the Blue Origin lunar lander.
And now Blue Origin is taking NASA to federal court. The company argues that the “issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” according to the Blue Origin spokesperson. Further details about the lawsuit were not provided. The suit was filed on Friday, August 13 in the Court of Federal Claims, and Blue Origin was granted a protective order to “protect confidential, proprietary, and source selection information” on August 16, as SpaceNews reports.
NASA said it’s aware of the lawsuit and is “currently reviewing details of the case,” as the agency explained in a statement.
Bezos’s ruthlessness, cynicism, hypocrisy, however one wishes to describe it, is on full display here. As SpacePolicyOnline points out, Bezos has previously spoken on this exact subject—companies suing NASA for lost contracts—and how this serves to hinder progress. Here’s what Bezos had to say in 2019 when speaking at the JFK Space Summit:
To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[...]
Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.
A frustrated Jeff Bezos, it would seem, is deliberately working to frustrate the “well meaning people at NASA,” and slow things down. And indeed, it’s very possible that this suit, like the GAO protest, which temporarily halted the HLS project, will once again result in delays. Landing Americans on the Moon in 2024 seems increasingly unrealistic with each passing day. To further complicate matters, NASA likely won’t have its next-generation spacesuit ready until 2025, and its upcoming SLS rocket has yet to launch.
All this bluster from Blue Origin is a bit perplexing, given that a second contract for a lunar lander is all but inevitable. NASA has made it clear that it wants multiple landing platforms and that this is fundamental to its long-term goals on the Moon.
At SpaceX, it’s business as usual, at least for now. Elon Musk’s company recently stacked its Starship rocket atop a Super Heavy, creating—albeit temporarily—the tallest rocket ever built. Musk said an orbital test flight of this behemoth could happen in a few weeks, pending regulatory approval.