Blue Origin announced Monday that it is protesting NASA's decision earlier this month to award a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for development of a new lunar lander for the agency's, rejecting competing proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics.
"NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute," Blue Origin, owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, said in a statement.
"In NASA's own words, it has made a 'high risk' selection," the statement continued. "Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base and not only delays, but also endangers America's return to the moon. Because of that, we've filed a protest with the GAO (Government Accountability Office)."
The Human Landing System, or HLS, is a key element in NASA's plans to return astronauts to the surface of the moon as early as 2024 using new Boeing-managed Space Launch System heavy-lift rockets, Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsules and a small, commercially developed lunar space station known as Gateway.
Once in orbit around the moon, astronauts will either transfer directly to the new lunar lander for descent to the surface or will first utilize Gateway as a research platform and way station.
NASA is targeting landings near the moon's south pole, where permanently shadowed craters may harbor reservoirs of ice that might eventually be extracted and converted into rocket fuel, air and water.
Unlike the lunar landers built for the Apollo program, which were owned by NASA and operated by contractors under direct government control, the HLS system is a commercial initiative in which the spacecraft will be designed, owned and operated by the builder for NASA.
The space agency awarded nearly $1 billion last April to SpaceX, a team led by Blue Origin and another led by Dynetics, partnering with Sierra Nevada, in ato come up with affordable, commercial lunar landers.
SpaceX submitted a proposal for a version of the Starship rocket it is currently developing on its own for deep space missions. Blue Origin teamed up with aerospace heavyweights Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to develop a more traditional two-stage lander. Dynetics and Sierra Nevada also came up with a two-stage system.
The agency originally planned to award follow-on HLS contracts to two of the companies to encourage competition and protect against the possibility of major problems that might affect one company but not the other.
But Congress only allocated $850 million in NASA's fiscal 2021 budget for lander development, about one quarter of the amount the agency said it needed to have a new vehicle ready by 2024.
Given the available money and projected future spending, NASA— SpaceX — on April 16, deciding the California rocket builder offered the most attractive combination of cost, technology and management expertise.
NASA said SpaceX's total evaluated price of $2,941,394,557 was the lowest of the three teams "by a wide margin." Blue Origin's price "was significantly higher than this," followed by Dynetics.
Blue Origin's protest says that NASA did not notify the company when it became apparent the agency's budget might not support two providers.
"During the proposal preparation and submission process, NASA had indicated an overriding intention to make two awards, but due to perceived shortfalls in currently available and anticipated future budget appropriations, it made only the award to SpaceX," Blue Origin's attorneys said in a letter to the GAO's general counsel.
NASA's decision eliminates HLS competition, the letter claims, and effectively locks down "immediate and future lunar landing system development and launch and lunar landing opportunities. However ... the Agency's evaluation process and award decision fails to comply with Federal procurement statutes and regulations and should be set aside."
The letter claims NASA "failed to allow offerers to meaningfully compete for an award when the agency's requirements changed due to its undisclosed, perceived shortfall of funding for the multi-year program lifecycle."
In addition, the attorneys said, NASA "changed the weight accorded to evaluation factors to make price the most important factor because of perceived funding limitations. For the reasons discussed below, the protest should be sustained."
NASA had no immediate comment.