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Blue Origin loses federal lawsuit over NASA moon lander contract

NASA picked SpaceX's Starship spacecraft, seen here in an artist's depiction, to land Artemis astronauts on the moon.
NASA picked SpaceX's Starship spacecraft, seen here in an artist's depiction, to land Artemis astronauts on the moon. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Blue Origin has lost the lawsuit it filed over the awarding of a lucrative NASA moon lander contract, freeing SpaceX up to resume its work on the project.

In April, NASA announced that it had selected SpaceX to develop the initial Human Landing System (HLS) for its Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon in the next few years. SpaceX beat out two other private groups for the $2.9 billion contract: Dynetics and "The National Team," a consortium led by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

Both Dynetics and Blue Origin quickly lodged protests with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), citing perceived flaws in the selection process. For example, the companies objected to the selection of a single HLS concept, when NASA had said it wanted to fund the development of at least two private moon landers. (NASA officials have said that the agency's funding situation precluded awarding multiple contracts.) 

Related: How NASA's Artemis moon landing with astronauts works

The GAO denied those protests in late July. Then, on Aug. 16, Blue Origin filed a lawsuit against NASA in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

That didn't go Blue Origin's way, either, we just learned: In a one-page decision released today (Nov. 4), Judge Richard A. Hertling ruled against the company, granting a motion by the federal government to dismiss the case. (The full ruling is under seal and will remain so until Nov. 18, Hertling wrote.)

The protests and lawsuit prevented SpaceX and NASA from getting much work done under the HLS deal, which the company intends to fulfill using its huge, fully reusable Starship system. But today's ruling should get the wheels turning again.

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"NASA will resume work with SpaceX under the Option A contract as soon as possible," agency officials wrote in a statement that was issued after Judge Hertling's ruling came out.

"In addition to this contract, NASA continues working with multiple American companies to bolster competition and commercial readiness for crewed transportation to the lunar surface," NASA officials added. "There will be forthcoming opportunities for companies to partner with NASA in establishing a long-term human presence at the moon under the agency’s Artemis program, including a call in 2022 to U.S. industry for recurring crewed lunar landing services."

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Blue Origin stressed that it aims to be a big part of the larger Artemis picture going forward despite today's decision. But it's not backing down from the objections and arguments that spurred the lawsuit.

"Our lawsuit with the Court of Federal Claims highlighted the important safety issues with the Human Landing System procurement process that must still be addressed," Blue Origin representatives wrote in an emailed statement. 

"Returning astronauts safely to the moon through NASA’s public-private partnership model requires an unprejudiced procurement process alongside sound policy that incorporates redundant systems and promotes competition," they added. "Blue Origin remains deeply committed to the success of the Artemis program, and we have a broad base of activity on multiple contracts with NASA to achieve the United States’ goal to return to the moon to stay."

Bezos responded to the ruling as well. "Not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract," the billionaire wrote via Twitter today.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk also tweeted out a reaction — a screenshot from the 2012 film "Dredd" along with the text "You have been judged."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.