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Thursday, 23 September 2021

Court filings shed light on Blue Origin vs. SpaceX lunar lander fight, with dark spots


Redacted versions of documents relating to Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit against the federal government and SpaceX lay out further details about the dispute over a multibillion-dollar NASA lunar lander contract, but the details that are left out are arguably just as intriguing.

Today the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals released the 59-page text of the Blue Origin-led industry consortium’s complaint, which was filed in August. The court also shared redacted responses from SpaceX.

The filings focus on NASA’s April decision to award SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop its Starship super-rocket as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed trip to the lunar surface, planned for as early as 2024.

At the time, NASA said that SpaceX’s proposal was technically superior to the concepts offered by Blue Origin and its partners — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — and by another competitor, Dynetics. SpaceX had the low bid, with Blue Origin’s team proposing $5.9 billion for its landing system. Draper’s proposal was even more expensive.

The original hope was that NASA might make multiple awards, in the interest of promoting competition and having a Plan B. But space agency officials said Congress appropriated only enough money to make one award.

In a protest filed with the Government Accountability Office, Blue Origin complained that NASA didn’t evaluate the proposals properly, and that SpaceX was given a chance to restructure its bid to fit NASA’s budget. The GAO largely sided with NASA and SpaceX in a ruling that let the contract award stand, but then Blue Origin took the dispute to federal court.

Blue Origin’s lawsuit touches on the aforementioned talking points, but it primarily focuses on waivers that NASA issued relating to “supporting spacecraft” that are apparently used in connection with SpaceX’s landing system. The details about those supporting spacecraft were blacked out by the court.

The lawsuit argues that issuing the waivers for individual flight readiness reviews and “other review requirements” for the supporting spacecraft gave SpaceX an unfair advantage in the competition. “Blue Origin and Dynetics did not get such a chance to compete with waived requirements the Agency afforded to SpaceX,” it says. “Had it had such an opportunity, Blue Origin would have been able to propose a substantially lower price…”

So what is the supporting spacecraft? References to SpaceX’s moon-landing Starship and a tanker version of the same spacecraft that would be used for in-flight refueling were left unredacted — so those probably aren’t at issue. The redacted document makes no mention of SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster, but guessing whether that’s the sticking point would be pure speculation.

Blue Origin calls on the court to issue an order that would suspend SpaceX’s work on the lunar lander contract and give the competitors an equal chance to discuss their proposals with NASA. If the order is issued as proposed by Blue Origin, the competitors would send “final proposal revisions” to NASA, and space agency officials would make a new award determination.

In one of its responses to the complaint, SpaceX says Blue Origin is relying on a “flawed interpretation” of NASA’s solicitation — an interpretation that was “unfortunately adopted by GAO” in its ruling.

SpaceX also says the unredacted version of Blue Origin’s complaint should remain sealed because it would disclose SpaceX’s proprietary and confidential information. The judge in the case, Richard Hertling, agreed with SpaceX on the redaction issue.

The court is expected to hear oral arguments in October, with an eye toward issuing a ruling by early November. In the meantime, NASA has granted a total of $146 million in fixed-price awards to Blue Origin, SpaceX, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman through a follow-up program aimed at boosting the space agency’s lunar landing capabilities.

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