SpaceX is clear to build a lander with NASA to put the first woman and another man on the Moon – after Uncle Sam dismissed complaints that the $2.94bn contract was awarded unfairly.
It was alleged NASA had, among other things, gone back on a promise to keep the process competitive by funding multiple lunar hardware designs, and eventually selecting the best for the mission, and thus the contract shouldn’t have been given to just one party at this stage. After these complaints were submitted to the Government Accountability Office, NASA paused its collaboration with SpaceX as an investigation was carried out.
That probe is now over, the complaints were thrown out at the end of July, and NASA and SpaceX can continue working together on their lander, dubbed the Human Landing System. That lander will be taken, with astronauts, to the Moon as part of NASA's Artemis program, or so it is hoped.
In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award
“In denying the protests, GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award,” Kenneth E. Patton, the accountability office's managing associate general counsel for procurement law, said in a statement.
Patton noted that even if NASA wanted to go ahead more than one manufacturer for the contract, and pick the best build later on for the flight, it didn’t have enough money to fund them all. More cash could come later from Congress, though for now there's enough for SpaceX and SpaceX only.
“NASA’s announcement provided that the number of awards the agency would make was subject to the amount of funding available for the program," he said. "In addition, the announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all. In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award.
“GAO further concluded there was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement as a result of the amount of funding available for the program. As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX.”
Dynetics said it accepted the GAO’s decision and would continue to compete for other government space contracts. “Dynetics is appreciative of the GAO's review of NASA's Human Landing System decision and while disappointed, we respect the GAO's determination announced today,” it stated.
“We believe healthy competition is necessary to maintain the industrial base required to achieve the important strategic goals of space exploration and national security. We will continue to pursue these opportunities with a team that helps strengthen the broader industrial base that includes international partnerships. Again, we appreciate the GAO's review of the decision and we look forward to working with NASA on the future HLS opportunities.”
Just days before the GAO announced its decision, Blue Origin supremo and billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos offered NASA a $2bn discount in an open letter that seems to have been filed in a circular filing cabinet. The Register has asked Blue Origin and SpaceX for comment.
- Bezos offers to knock $2bn off his bill to NASA to stay in the running for Moon contract
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- Japan plans remote-controlled robotic space tourism to the ISS and beyond
“The [GAO’s] decision enables NASA to award the contract that will ultimately result in the first crewed demonstration landing on the surface of the Moon under NASA’s Artemis plan,” NASA said in a statement.
“Importantly, the GAO’s decision will allow NASA and SpaceX to establish a timeline for the first crewed landing on the Moon in more than 50 years.”
NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Moon by 2023 at the earliest. “NASA recognizes that sending American astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program and establishing a long-term presence on the Moon is a priority for the Biden Administration and is imperative for maintaining American leadership in space,” it added.
“In the face of challenges during the last year, NASA and its partners have made significant achievements to advance Artemis, including a successful hot fire test for the Space Launch System rocket. An uncrewed flight of Artemis I is on track for this year and a crewed Artemis II mission is planned for 2023.”
That may be too ambitious. The Artemis program has stalled repeatedly. A recent audit doubted the space agency could get humans back to the Moon by 2024, let alone in just two years. ®