GAO rejects challenges to SpaceX’s lunar lander contract

The Government Accountability Office today turned back protests from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Alabama-based Dynetics, ruling that NASA was within its rights to award a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the first lunar lander to carry astronauts to the moon since the Apollo era.

Industry teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics had put in rival bids for NASA’s lunar lander business, and filed protests with the GAO when the space agency made the single-source award in April. The GAO had 100 days to decide whether the award should be upheld or overturned. In the meantime, NASA and SpaceX suspended work on the contract.

The bid protests raised several objections to NASA’s award — including the fact that NASA made only one award.


Jeff Bezos’ space venture approaches crucial phase

Jeff Bezos may be easing back from his CEO role at Amazon, but now he’s due to feel the heat at Blue Origin, the privately held space venture he created in the year 2000.

The next 31 days arguably could rank as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company that’s headquartered in Kent, Wash., but also has employees in locales ranging from Florida and Washington, D.C., to Alabama, Texas and California.

The red-letter date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to take the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas.

But there are a couple of other dates that loom large on Blue Origin’s timeline: The big one is Aug. 4, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered for a lunar lander contract from NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program.


NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash

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 contract. “NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Space News quoted NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt as saying.

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.


Elon Musk taunts Jeff Bezos over lunar lander protest

The billionaire space battle just got kicked up a notch, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture challenging NASA’s award of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX — and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replying with a double entendre.

The contretemps in commercial space began on April 26 when Blue Origin sent the Government Accountability Office a 50-page filing (plus more than 100 pages’ worth of attachments) claiming that NASA improperly favored SpaceX in the deliberations that led to this month’s single-source award.

A team led by Blue Origin — with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper as partners — had competed for a share of NASA funding to develop a system capable of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. Alabama-based Dynetics was also in the competitiion, and has also filed a protest with the GAO.

Both protests contend that NASA was wrong to make only one contract award, despite Congress’ less-than-expected support levels, due to the importance of promoting competition in the lunar lander market. Both protests also contest many of the claims NASA made in a document explaining its selection process. For example, Blue Origin says NASA erroneously determined that it was seeking advance payments for development work.

Although both protests delve deeply into the details of procurement, Blue Origin’s challenge has an added twist of personal rivalry.


GAO sides with Blue Origin in launch dispute

New Glenn
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. (Blue Origin Illustration)

The Government Accountability Office is agreeing with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture that the Air Force needs to amend its rules for deciding who’ll get future contracts for national security space launches.

Today’s GAO decision comes in response to Blue Origin’s pre-award protest over the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which was filed in August when Blue Origin and three other companies submitted their bids for future procurements.

The launches covered by the process would be executed between 2022 and 2026, and are sure to bring billions of dollars to the companies that are selected.

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Watchdogs worry over NASA super-rocket

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The federal government’s watchdog agency says getting NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket off the ground is likely to take longer and cost more than the space agency says it will.

Any issues that crop up in the months ahead could push the first uncrewed SLS launch, known as Artemis 1, from its planned mid-2020 timetable to mid-2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a study issued today.

What’s more, the GAO says NASA has been shifting costs forward to make it look as if expenses for the first launch have grown by $1 billion, when the actual adjusted cost growth is $1.8 billion.

Schedule and cost issues for SLS are particularly problematic because the rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024.

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GAO watchdogs howl about NASA’s performance

Image: Orion
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion capsule in flight. (Credit: NASA)

The Government Accountability Office issued a downbeat report on NASA’s major space projects today, saying that cost and schedule performance has deteriorated over the past year.

The full extent of the cost issues is unknown, primarily due to uncertainties surrounding the effort to build NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, the GAO said in its 127-page “Quick Look” assessment.

NASA’s multibillion-dollar commercial space taxi program, which has SpaceX and Boeing as lead contractors, could face delays as well. The GAO said full certification for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station could slip to the end of 2019 for SpaceX, and to early 2020 for Boeing.

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GAO reportedly faults SpaceX rocket engine

SpaceX launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Iridium telecommunication satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Jan. 14. (SpaceX Photo)

Investigators from the Government Accountability Office are said to be raising concerns about persistent cracking in the turbine blades in SpaceX’s rocket engines, and adding to doubts about the schedule for flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The concerns are contained in a draft report being prepared by the GAO, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Journal said its information came from government and industry officials familiar with the GAO’s study of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and its Merlin engines.

In response to today’s Journal article, SpaceX said it was working to resolve the turbine blade issue in cooperation with NASA.

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