Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin has lost its appeal to challenge NASA’s decision to only award one lunar lander contract to rival SpaceX back in April. The federal government ruled on Friday that even though NASA had originally said it wanted to award multiple contracts to build a lunar lander that will put astronauts back on the Moon, the fact that in the end it only chose one, and that one was not Blue Origin, was perfectly legal.
For those catching up with the story (the latest saga in the billionaire space race), back in April NASA awarded a $2.89 billion contract to Elon Musk’s space company to build the first commercial human lander as part of the Artemis mission. NASA has been pretty open about its funding issues, launching the first-ever Commercial Crew Program crewed mission last year, opening up spaceflight to commercial space companies to share the cost.
After initially saying it wanted to choose two companies for the lunar lander contract from the three companies who put forward competing pitches (Space X, Blue Origin, and Dynetics) to both encourage competition and act as a safety net, NASA opted for just one, SpaceX’s proposal, which came in at $2.89 billion compared to Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion.
Bezos’s company filed a complaint with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA, claiming that it "moved the goalposts", accusing NASA of giving SpaceX an unfair advantage by allowing it to revise the pricing of its pitch after a change to NASA’s budget. It also accused NASA of unfair criticism in some technical evaluations. (Elon Musk's reaction at the time was less than mature.)
While waiting for a verdict, Bezos apparently tried to hurry up a potential repeal by NASA by offering up what some have seen as a not very subtle bribe – waiving $2 billion from any fees should it be chosen for the contract while also paying for any orbital tests missions and covering cost overruns – in an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson. This led some to suspect Bezos knew the GAO would not side with him and to offer NASA another option.
Now, the GAO, which can review federal contracts, has concluded that although NASA improperly waived one requirement for SpaceX, it was not serious enough to redo the competition – which could push back the actual development and building of a lunar lander by months. "Despite this finding, the decision also concludes that the protesters could not establish any reasonable possibility of competitive prejudice arising from this limited discrepancy in the evaluation,” the GAO said in a statement.
"After noting that SpaceX submitted the lowest-priced proposal with the highest rating, and that the offers submitted by Blue Origin and Dynetics were significantly higher in price, NASA also concluded that the agency lacked the necessary funding to make more than one award."
This doesn't mean that NASA has conclusively refused to reconsider Blue Origin's involvement, but the GAO has provided the get-out-jail-free card should it not want to. And it doesn't sound like it wants to, as per a statement released Friday afternoon.
"The 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. 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 said in the statement.
With Blue Origin's first crewed spaceflight under its belt, it's likely Bezos's company will be involved with NASA's plans for space travel in the future, but with Virgin Galactic nipping at its heels, Boeing sending its first-ever Starliner crewed capsule (without humans onboard) to dock with the ISS tomorrow, and even Porsche entering the space race, the number of commercial space companies it will have to pick from is only increasing, so there are no guarantees.