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Blue Origin protest of NASA moon lander choice nixed by government agency

Blue Origin's protest against NASA's decision to not hire the company to build its next human moon lander has been shut down by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

Earlier this year, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to build its Human Landing System (HLS), or the moon lander that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the agency's Artemis program. Three companies had competed for the contract: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, many expected the agency to choose two companies to both stoke competition and have a backup vehicle. However, they ended up choosing only SpaceX with its Starship vehicle. 

In response, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests to the GAO, and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos issued an open letter to NASA in a bid to change the agency's mind. 

The GAO "denied protests filed by Blue Origin Federation, LLC, of South Kent, Washington, and Dynetics, Inc.-A Leidos Company, of Huntsville, Alabama," the office announced in a statement Friday (July 30) after the "protestors," Blue Origin and Dynetics, "challenged their [NASA's] non-selection for awards." 

Related: NASA picks SpaceX's Starship to land Artemis astronauts on the moon

Following GAO's decision, NASA released a statement sharing its thoughts on the matter.

"NASA recognizes that sending American astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program and establishing a long-term presence on the moon is a priority for the Biden Administration and is imperative for maintaining American leadership in space," NASA's statement reads. "NASA is moving forward with urgency, but astronaut safety is the priority and the agency will not sacrifice the safety of the crew in the steadfast pursuit of the goal to establish a long-term presence on the moon."

The statement adds that "as soon as possible, NASA will provide an update on the way ahead for Artemis, the human landing system, and humanity's return to the moon," though it does not provide any details about that forthcoming announcement. 

"We will continue to work with the Biden Administration and Congress to ensure funding for a robust and sustainable approach for the nation's return to the moon in a collaborative effort with U.S. commercial partners," NASA's statement concludes.

An open letter in protest

This denial follows a few days after Bezos issued an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson about the agency's decision to solely choose SpaceX in the bid for the HLS contract, offering to cover billions of dollars in costs in exchange for a contract. 

"Instead of this single source approach, NASA should embrace its original strategy of competition," Bezos wrote in the open letter. "Competition will prevent any single source from having insurmountable leverage over NASA. Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes, and cost overruns. Without competition, NASA's short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won't serve the national interest."

Bezos' letter went on to detail the benefits of Blue Origin's HLS approach and offer to permanently waive up to $2 billion in payments that they might receive from NASA for the contract for the next two years. They also offered to cover the cost of the development of a mission to low Earth orbit for the vehicle and to cover any cost overruns with their contract. 

Despite their pleas, the GAO's decision Friday cements SpaceX as the sole recipient of the HLS contract. 

Related: NASA unveils plan for Artemis 'base camp' on the moon beyond 2024

An artist's depiction of astronauts walking on the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program. (Image credit: NASA)

Behind GAO's denial

The GAO listed three reasons behind their decision, addressing three main complaints by Blue Origin and Dynetics. 

First, they addressed Blue Origin's argument that NASA was "required to make multiple awards consistent with the announcement's stated preference for multiple awards." They concluded that the agency didn't violate any law or regulation in choosing only one award recipient and that NASA was within their right to make one award, multiple or even none at all. 

The office also addressed the allegation by Blue Origin and Dynetics that NASA "was required to open discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement," when the agency realized it only had enough funding to offer the HLS contract to one company. The GAO also found that NASA was not required to do any of these things regardless of their knowledge of the funding available. 

Finally, they countered the argument that NASA "unreasonably evaluated" the three proposals during the acquisition process, concluding that "the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement's terms." 

Despite its denial of Blue Origin and Dynetic's request to reconsider the HLS decision, the GAO did agree with the pair "in one limited instance," the GAO said in the statement. The GAO agreed with the "protesters," that NASA improperly waived what GAO describes as a "mandatory solicitation requirement," of the announcement for SpaceX. 

A silver lining

Despite this denial, the GAO did clarify in its statement today that their decision "expresses no view as to the merits of these proposals." In other words, their decision doesn't reflect any sort of opinion about the companies' HLS proposals to NASA. 

Additionally, while the GAO has officially denied the companies' protests, Nelson has been very outspoken about his support for competition in spaceflight, especially when it comes to the HLS contract and the entirety of NASA's commercial crew program, which has so far contracted both SpaceX and Boeing to build crew capsules for trips to and from the International Space Station. 

"Competition is good," Nelson said July 29 during a prelaunch briefing for Boeing's now-delayed Starliner OFT-2 uncrewed test flight. "Not only for the obvious reasons that it brings about the most efficient, productive and cost effective work product. But what it does, it gives you a backup." 

"The proof's in the pudding," he added. "Years ago, when this competition for commercial crews started, what if we hadn't had two competitors? And what if it had only been Boeing? And so right there, that's enough demonstration for you of why we want competition."

He added that "that's why we want competition in selecting the human landing system going forward on the moon. So that's what I expect that we're going to do now." 

Now, obviously the agency has only awarded the HLS contract to SpaceX and the GAO has formally denied the two other competitors' requests to reconsider. However, Nelson's final comments on the matter during the briefing on July 29 seem to tease the possibility that the discussion might be opened back up if NASA secures more funding. 

"You can't do all of this, something as complicated and sophisticated as this human landing system, unless you have the money," Nelson said. "And I'm very optimistic at this point that the Congress is going to give us some additional funds. That will allow us to go forward with that competition."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.