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Not so fast, SpaceX: $3bn NASA Moon landing contract blocked by rivals' gripes

Blue Origin, Dynetics cry foul

NASA’s $2.89bn contract awarded to SpaceX for its Starship rocket to send the first American woman and next man to the Moon has been put on ice after SpaceX’s competitors complained to the US Government Accountability Office.

“On April 26, NASA was notified that Blue Origin Federation and Dynetics filed protests challenging the Option A human landing system selection with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO),” a spokesperson from the US space agency confirmed to The Register in a statement on Monday.

“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS Option A contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement."

The Moon outing is part of NASA's ambitious Artemis program. The agency hopes to eventually build a lunar base as part of that mission and use it as a stepping stone for humans to explore Mars and beyond. The private company selected by NASA to provide the vehicles for this – so far, Elon Musk's SpaceX – will not only receive huge sums of money, it will also gain unrivaled access to the agency’s internal data and a head start in developing spacecraft safe for humans in longer missions.

Space is in a competitive market, and there aren’t that many huge contracts to win, so it’s no wonder Blue Origin and Dynetics have filed their objections. Dynetics, for one, is upset that NASA said it wanted to maintain a competitive environment in which the rocket makers would bid for work, and has instead just plumped for SpaceX.

“Dynetics firmly believes our [human landing system] HLS design offers great potential to contribute toward NASA’s HLS program goals and we believe NASA's initial plan for continued competition remains the best approach to ensure program success,” the company’s spokesperson told El Reg. “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. We respect this process and look forward to a fair and informed resolution of the matter.”

In a complaint to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Dynetics said NASA chose SpaceX as an easy route after the agency ran into budget constraints and increasing delays. “NASA walked away from the ground rules for the HLS program, effectively converting this Option A award into a lowest-priced, technically acceptable competition and eschewing any future competition for the HLS program,” it wrote [PDF]. It also said that its own technology was unfairly assessed by the agency.

“To the extent NASA identified purported weaknesses in Dynetics’ proposal, the vast majority are grounded, not in the engineering substance of the lunar lander proposed by Dynetics, but in perceived information gaps where, in fact, NASA had the information in hand to resolve its concerns.”

The Register has asked Blue Origin for comment.

NASA has therefore paused its decision to award the deal to SpaceX, and that the three aerospace companies are now back in the running for the contract. “On April 30, NASA implemented a no-cost extension through August 9, 2021, to each of the base period HLS contracts with Blue Origin Federation, Dynetics, and SpaceX. These extensions continue the contracts for administrative purposes ahead of GAO resolution of the current protests,” the spokesperson added.

The GAO has until August 4 to audit the contract decision, we're told. ®

Updated to add

“NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute,” a spokesperson from Blue Origin told The Register.

“In NASA’s own words, it has made a ‘high risk’ selection. 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.”

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