by Thomas Kitchen,
The following story was written by a student on the staff of The Jaguar Times as part of Hilliard Bradley High School’s Journalism Production course.
The Artemis program, NASA’s sister program to Apollo, has been in development since 2017. The program's goal is to return humans to the moon and to “deliver the first woman and first person of color to the Moon” according to NASA’s official statement on the human landing system selection. In September 2019 NASA announced it was looking for private space organizations to create the Human Landing System (HLS). SpaceX, Dynetics, and Blue Origin all submitted proposals for the HLS. On April 16th, 2021 NASA chose SpaceX to develop the HLS. Roughly two weeks later Blue Origin and Dynetics began a protest which halted the development of HLS. They claimed that the selection process was unfair and NASA moved the finish line last second. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked over the case and put the protest to an end saying that what NASA did was completely legal. Now, Jeff Bezos is suing NASA halting the Artemis program again.
NASA’s human landing system selection
The selection all had to do with price. NASA didn’t get the money from Congress to properly develop 2 lunar landers in order to support competition in the event that one of the selections fell behind In development. When SpaceX was contracted to make the Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2010, and Boeing, the Starliner. It turns out, having competition was a good investment for NASA because the Boeing Starliner hasn’t even completed a successful test flight. While the Crew dragon has had 2 crewed missions thus far, and planned for a 3rd crewed flight in mid September. According to NASA’s official statement on HLS selection, “NASA should, as a first step, open price negotiations with the Option A offeror that is both very highly rated from a technical and management perspective and that also had, by a wide margin, the lowest initially-proposed price—SpaceX.”
The first protest
The protesters, Blue Origin and Dynetics, argued that NASA was required to pick 2 companies for HLS, since NASA made announcements stating a preference for 2 awards. Blue Origin and Dynetics also argued that NASA unreasonably evaluated all three of the companies proposals. Finally, they argued that NASA improperly waived a mandatory solicitation requirement for SpaceX (meaning the protesters thought what NASA did was illegal). The GAO Conclusion to these claims was that NASA didn’t break any laws by only picking one award for the contract, and had the right to pick one, multiple, or no awards at all. Upon selecting SpaceX, NASA said in its statement that it could not afford to pick more than one selection, as it didn’t have enough funding for the program. As a result, the GAO denied the claims made by Blue Origin and Dynetics.
Blue Origin sues NASA in federal court
A spokesperson for Blue Origin called the lawsuit “an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” adding: “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition.” Blue Origin has a history of getting upset when they don’t get lucrative contracts. In 2020, the US Air Force terminated a $500 million contract to develop the New Glenn rocket and instead, went with SpaceX and ULA to launch its interests in space. It should come as no surprise that Blue Origin has decided to take NASA to federal court to receive a portion of the lunar lander contract.
What it means for the Artemis program
According to NASA they will pause HLS development to review the case made by Blue Origin. Since SpaceX is developing the lunar starship for the HLS, Blue Origin can’t actually stop the development of the HLS or Artemis with this lawsuit. On NASA‘s end, they only have to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. The SLS is almost fully stacked, meaning it’s almost ready for pre-flight testing. SpaceX on the other hand had been rapidly developing Starship; Lunar Starship (SpaceX’s selection for HLS) is a variant of Starship. Therefore SpaceX can continue development of Starship, while at the same time developing Lunar Starship and Blue Origin can’t do anything about it. Unless Blue Origin wins the lawsuit, all they are doing is wasting time and money.