Blue Origin Sues NASA Over HLS Award

Blue Origin Sues NASA Over HLS Award

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is suing NASA in federal court over its award of a lunar lander contract only to SpaceX instead of two companies as originally planned. Bezos continues to insist the acquisition process was flawed even after losing an appeal to the Government Accountabilty Office.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. An aerospace company filing suit against the government over a contract award is hardly unprecedented. However, having already lost its appeal to GAO, this lawsuit is raising a lot of eyebrows.

Blue Origin is leading a “National Team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper trying to win a Human Landing System (HLS) contract to put astronauts back on the Moon for the first time since 1972 — NASA’s Artemis program.

NASA is not procuring lunar landers per se, but instead is using a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model to fund companies to build and own the landers, investing their own money in addition to the government’s, and sell services to NASA and other customers.

Dynetics and SpaceX also bid on the HLS contract. NASA wanted to pick two of the three, but could only afford one because Congress provided only 25 percent of its requested FY2021 funding.

SpaceX won with a $2.9 billion bid. Blue Origin and Dynetics, which bid $5.9 billion and $8.5-9.0 billion, respectively, appealed NASA’s decision to GAO.

The agency had to issue a stop-work order to SpaceX while GAO deliberated, prompting complaints in the space community that the dispute would make it all but impossible to achieve the Biden Administration’s goal, adopted from the Trump Administration, to get people back on the Moon by 2024.

On July 30, GAO ruled in NASA’s favor. Blue Origin responded that it believed “there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision” that “GAO wasn’t able to address … due to their limited jurisdiction.”

Although just days before the GAO decision Bezos offered to put up $2 billion of the company’s own money, he since has waged a public relations campaign against SpaceX and NASA, including posting infographics and other material on its website characterizing SpaceX’s system as too complex and risky and criticizing NASA’s decision.

Source: Blue Origin website


Source: Blue Origin website


Source: Blue Origin website

The company’s entreaty to Congress to direct NASA to select a second contractor  was heard. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA and represents Blue Origin, which is headquartered near Seattle. She included a provision in the FY2022 NASA Authorization Act that passed the Senate in June authorizing $10.032 billion over 5 years for a second HLS contractor. Separately, three Senators are trying to get that amount of money allocated to NASA as direct spending, separate from appropriations, through the infrastructure/jobs bill.

With all of that as a backdrop, today’s lawsuit perhaps should not come as a surprise. In a statement, a Blue Origin spokesperson repeated that the company believes the procurement was flawed.

“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System. We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.” 

However, these strident actions to win a contract right now, possibly delaying the return to the Moon, strike some as ironic considering comments Bezos made two years ago. During an interview with Caroline Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, he complained the biggest hurdle today is not technology, but government procurement.

To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…

They didn’t have that back in 1961 and 1962. They were moving fast. …. I don’t know the exact times, I’m thinking probably they were letting contracts, actually finished contracts [for the Apollo lunar lander] within a year of [JFK’s 1962] Rice [University] speech. ….

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement.  It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.  [beginning about minute 29:00 of the video]


Yet that is exactly what he is doing, trying to get money added through one of his Senators, with a second route through the jobs/infrastructure legislation.

Despite the fact that the current procurement is not Blue Origin’s only chance.  Artemis is a long-term sustainable effort to explore and utilize the Moon. SpaceX’s contract is only for the first landing. NASA has already taken a step towards procurement of landing services from additional companies for the longer term — Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services (LETS).

Meanwhile, NASA resumed the contract with SpaceX immediately after the GAO ruling. Whether this lawsuit will require a second stop-work order remains to be seen. In a statement today, NASA said it will provide an update on its plans as soon as possible.

NASA was notified that Blue Origin filed a bid protest with the United States Court of Federal Claims following the denial of the protests filed with the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding NASA’s selection for the human landing system Option A award. NASA officials are currently reviewing details of the case.

NASA is committed to the Artemis program and to maintaining the nation’s global leadership in space exploration. With our partners, we will go to the Moon and stay to enable science investigations, develop new technology, and create high paying jobs for the greater good and in preparation to send astronauts to Mars. As soon as possible, the agency will provide an update on the way forward for returning to the Moon as quickly and as safely as possible under Artemis.

SpaceX is proceeding with development of its Starship system in any case using its own funds. Earlier this month it performed a “fit check” of its Super Heavy rocket with a Starship on top (the combination is also called Starship). It was just a test and the assemblage was destacked hours later, but SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted this weekend that he expects the first orbital flight test “in a few weeks, pending regulatory approval.”

The Bezos-Musk competition plays out vividly over Twitter, not only for HLS, but in their other space businesses. Blue Origin’s development of BE-4 engines to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s own New Glenn, which is behind schedule, prompted a recent quip from Musk that if all it took was lobbying and lawyers, Bezos would be on Pluto right now.

Musk’s response to Blue Origin’s criticism that it could take 16 Starship launches to get an HLS to the Moon was to downplay the difficulty.

NASA, at least, is convinced that SpaceX can deliver, although many are skeptical the 2024 deadline can be met technically or budgetarily regardless of what company is building the landing system.

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