Watchdog denies Blue Origin’s challenge to NASA’s lunar lander program

The Government Accountability Office sided with NASA Friday denying protests submitted by Blue Origin and Dynetics of the agency’s decision to pick only SpaceX’s Starship for the first human moon lander contract.

The decision clears the way for NASA to continue working with SpaceX to send the first astronauts back to the moon in 50 years. NASA awarded SpaceX’s Starship spaceship the first human landing system contract in April for $2.94 billion. SpaceX has been developing and testing Starship in Texas with plans for orbital flights in the coming months.

Soon after the contract announcement, two of SpaceX’s competitors for the contract — Blue Origin and Dynetics — submitted bid protests to the GAO arguing NASA should have selected more than one vehicle for the job.

On Thursday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the protests had slowed the human lander development but could not comment further as the protests were still under review.

On most accounts, the GAO sided with NASA concluding that “the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms.”

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos recently offered NASA a discount should it choose to award a second contract, slicing the price of its moon lander by billions of dollars.

“We’ve lost some time because there is this a dispute that is going to be reconciled by the General Accounting Office and that should be coming next week. And under the law, the policies and procedures of the GAO protests we are mute until that decision is made,” Nelson said.

The GAO had until Aug. 4 to release its decision.

Kenneth E. Patton, managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law at GAO, explained the decision to deny the protests in a statement Friday.

“In denying the protests, GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award. NASA’s announcement provided that the number of awards the agency would make was subject to the amount of funding available for the program,” the statement read. “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.”

The human landing system is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program slated to return astronauts to the lunar surface beginning in 2024. The astronaut landing system will have to work with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the Gateway station orbiting the moon to return humans there in the next few years.

SpaceX’s Starship will carry astronauts from NASA’s orbiting lunar station down to the surface of the moon and back up to the Lunar Gateway. It’s unclear how the Lunar Gateway and Starship will work together, but this contract resolution clears the way for work to continue on that partnership.

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