NASA says it’ll hold up on its payments to SpaceX for developing its Starship super-rocket as a lunar lander while the Government Accountability Office sorts out challenges to the $2.9 billion contract award from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics.
Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin submitted their protests to the GAO this week, contending that the award unfairly favored SpaceX. The three teams spent months working on proposals in hopes of winning NASA’s support for developing a landing system capable of putting astronauts on the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.
The GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints have merit, and if so, what to do about it. That 100-day clock runs out on Aug. 4.
In the meantime, the space agency is suspending work on the Human Landing System contract.
“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “NASA cannot provide further comment due to the pending litigation.“
It’s not clear how much of an effect the suspension of NASA funding will have on Starship development. Even before this month’s contract award, SpaceX was conducting an extraordinarily rapid series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes. The next prototype, dubbed SN15, is due for launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas sometime in the next few days.
Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the applications that SpaceX has in mind for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even bigger Super Heavy booster are also meant to be used for point-to-point terrestrial travel, mass deployment of satellites in Earth orbit, commercial trips around the moon and odysseys to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in private investment for its rocket development effort, and that funding seems likely to sustain SpaceX while the GAO reviews NASA’s award.
NASA officials had hoped to choose two teams to go on to the next phase of lunar lander development, but because Congress allocated only a quarter of the $3.3 billion that NASA was seeking for the project in the current fiscal year, the space agency decided to go with only one of the teams. SpaceX came in with the lowest cost and the highest rating.
Both Blue Origin and Dynetics said that NASA didn’t assess their lunar lander proposals correctly, and that officials changed the rules of the competition in midcourse. Dynetics said NASA should have reworked or canceled its plan for awarding contracts once it determined there wasn’t enough money for two teams.
The teams also argued in their filings that going with a single source ran counter to NASA’s general trend to select multiple teams for key commercial space programs, in the interest of encouraging competition and providing redundancy if one of the teams falters. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., echoed that criticism last week during the confirmation hearing for NASA’s next administrator, former Sen. Bill Nelson.
“NASA has a big tradition of ensuring resilience in commercial programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what’s called dissimilar redundancy. So I want to know that you will commit to rapidly providing Congress with a plan for assuring that kind of resilience our of the Human Lander program,” Cantwell told Nelson. In response, Nelson agreed that “competition is always good.”
On Thursday, NASA said it’s looking into opening up a new program to procure commercial lunar landing services for the crewed missions that will follow up on SpaceX’s initial demonstration mission. Meanwhile, the Senate confirmed Nelson’s nomination by unanimous consent.