Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is suing NASA over its awarding the Artemis lunar lander contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX earlier this year, a major escalation in the fight over the privilege of returning humanity to the Moon for the first time since 1972.
The lawsuit brought in federal court this week follows after Blue Origin’s original protest was rejected by federal regulators, The Verge reports.
The new lawsuit may put a hold on further funds going to SpaceX for the development of its Starship lunar lander project, potentially putting the expected mission date beyond the 2024 target set by NASA for the Artemis Moon mission.
The exact nature of Blue Origin’s complaint isn’t known, since the lawsuit was filed under a protective order, but appears to protest “NASA’s unlawful and improper evaluation of [Artemis lunar lander] proposals submitted” for consideration.
Three companies bid for the lunar lander contract: Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics, a defense contractor. Blue Origin’s bid of $5.9 billion lost out to the $2.9 billion bid from SpaceX, which led Blue Origin to offer to cover up to $2 billion in costs, effectively lowering its bid to $3.9 billion.
This still wasn’t enough to move NASA to reconsider.
Blue Origin’s complaint seems to focus on NASA’s original intention to have two different companies develop lunar landers, presumably picking the most successful of the two for the actual Artemis missions that first land an uncrewed ship on the Moon before attempting a crewed mission if the first is successful.
NASA, in awarding the contract to SpaceX, indicated that Congress hasn’t allocated enough funding for an additional lander, so it could only pick one in the end. Blue Origin has since argued that once this became known to NASA, it should have canceled the contract bidding process and started over with the new terms.
“NASA veered from its original dual-source acquisition strategy due to perceived near-term budgetary issues,” Bezos said after Blue Origin offered to cover an additional $2 billion in costs, “and this offer removes that obstacle.”
Whether Blue Origin makes this case in a federal court remains to be seen, but the lawsuit definitely escalates the fight between SpaceX and Blue Origin over the prestigious contract.
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While it’s tempting to write all this off as a bunch of billionaires fighting over bragging rights, it’s much more complicated than that.
Blue Origin itself has only just brought a human crew past the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of outer space, and even then its crew capsule was only “in space” for a few minutes before returning to Earth.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has successfully launched dozens of reusable rockets into orbit and ferried astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), so it would seem like SpaceX would be a shoe-in for the lunar lander contract.
The difference here is that Blue Origin’s lunar lander proposal wasn’t strictly a Blue Origin project, as it was working with some aerospace industry heavyweights like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to make up for its own lack of expertise in this endeavor.
Far more than anyone, it’s Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin who stand to lose if SpaceX is awarded more NASA contracts, just as Boeing and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are losing ground to SpaceX with crewed flights to the ISS.
These aerospace contractors have had a fairly tight relationship with NASA and the US Department of Defense for everything from building rockets to launching satellites, and that largely exclusive relationship over the decades has kept the competitive bidding process much less competitive than the name implies.
That all changed with SpaceX, which has been able to come in and undercut these company’s bids by a sometimes substantial margin, cost these companies a lot of money in the process.
So while it might be Blue Origin’s name on the lawsuit, there are a lot of older players in the industry hoping that Blue Origin can take SpaceX down a peg.