On Monday, Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office contesting NASA’s choice to select only SpaceX to supply its next lunar lander.
Last year, NASA announced the award of three contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to begin the development of landing systems allowing the next humans to land on the Moon as early as 2024 as part of the Artemis program. A few days ago, the American agency finally turned to SpaceX (and only SpaceX). And inevitably, the decision does not pass with the competition.
Blue Origin files a complaint
Blue Origin has indeed filed a fifty page protest with the US Government Accountability Office on Monday. “The dispute underscores that whatever Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos’ outsized ambitions for the future, the current fortunes of their space companies and the ability to generate the profits necessary to realize their grandiose dreams depend on business concerns like the joust for government contracts“, Notes the New York Times.
Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said NASA’s decision was based on “mistaken assessments” of the proposed deals. According to him, the American agency would have “underestimated the benefits of Blue Origin’s proposal”And“minimized the technical challenges associated with the SpaceX project ”.
In addition, the CEO of Blue Origin adds that in any case, NASA should have stuck to its repeatedly expressed desire to select not one, but two companies. However, in fact, NASA has in reality nothing officially promised. In the end, the agency chose only SpaceX, and for several (good) reasons.
SpaceX, a cheaper vision of the future
First, for the current fiscal year, Congress has only provided that $ 850 million to NASA, or a quarter of what the agency had requested for the development of lunar landers. According to Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA, this limited budget is part of what led the agency to choose only one company.
Estimated at six billion dollars, the offer offered by Blue Origin was more than double the price of SpaceX. On the other hand, according to Bob Smith, NASA would have met and come to an agreement with SpaceX to negotiate its price downwards. However, the agency would not have started no similar negotiations with Blue Origin. “We haven’t had the opportunity to revise our price, and it’s fundamentally unfair“Mr. Smith said.
In addition to these limited budgets, SpaceX has also submitted a version of its Starship vehicle which, in time, will be able to carry many more people in a single trip in addition to being fully reusable.
Of course, the Starship is also technically the most demanding of the vehicles on offer. To carry out its missions on the Moon and beyond, engineers will indeed have to develop the technology to supply its vessels with methane and liquid oxygen in low earth orbit. Despite everything, NASA is well aware that by betting on the Starship, it is thus giving itself the means to increase the number of missions at low cost.
A (big) train ahead
Elon Musk’s company has also distinguished itself in recent years. Its Falcon 9 rocket is now winning the majority of commercial satellite launch contracts, while its Crew Dragon capsule has already transported three crews to the ISS.
Blue Origin is lagging behind. Successfully tested, however, its New Shepard spacecraft is only intended for short suborbital voyages, while the maiden flight of its New Glenn rocket, currently in development, will only be operated only in 2022 (at least).
Kathie Lueders said a follow-up competition to build subsequent landers would still be open to Blue Origin, Dynetics and other companies. Bob Smith said at the time that Blue Origin would submit future bids, but not without a hint of annoyance. In the meantime, the Government Accountability Office has 100 days to take a decision on the protest.