Protests From Dynetics and Blue Origin put NASA’s Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX on Hold

Protests From Dynetics and Blue Origin put NASA's Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX on Hold

Project Artemis, NASA’s long-awaited plan to send astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era, has made many steps forward. Aside from developing the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the elements that will make up the Lunar Gateway, NASA recently awarded SpaceX the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS), which will allow astronauts to Lunar surface.

That decision didn’t go well with the other two companies that NASA was also considering. These included Blue Origin, the commercial real estate company founded by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based aerospace company Dynetics. After both companies filed protests, NASA decided to give SpaceX a hold on the HLS award while it investigated the complaints.

As part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2), NASA announced the selection of these three companies for the development of HLS concepts back in April 2020. The three companies were awarded fixed-price contracts totaling $ 967 million. During a 10-month base period, NASA experts worked with each to bring their concepts to life.

The three most important HLS concepts for NASA’s Artemis project. Photo credit: NASA

SpaceX, for its part, offered its design for a fully integrated vehicle that closely resembles the spaceship, but has been modified for moon landings. Blue Origin, meanwhile, designed a three-stage lunar lander that was jointly developed with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Known as the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV), this spaceship would consist of a descent, transfer, and ascent element.

Then there was the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS), a single stage vehicle that offers both descent and ascent capabilities and sits low on the ground for quick access to the surface and for quick storage of tools and samples. On April 16, 2021, NASA announced that it had chosen the SpaceX concept for a modified spacecraft that included a fixed, fixed-price contract valued at $ 2.9 billion.

On April 26, Blue Origin denied the decision and filed a 50-page statement with the Federal Accountability Office (GAO). Bob Smith (CEO of Blue Origin) was interviewed by the New York Times shortly afterwards. Speaking to Kenneth Chang, Smith claimed that an incorrect valuation was the reason the company was passed over in favor of SpaceX.

In particular, he felt that NASA downplayed the risks associated with SpaceX’s design, underestimated the benefits of Blue Origin, and focused too much on costs:

“It’s really atypical for NASA to make mistakes like this. They’re generally quite good to buy, especially on their flagship missions like America’s return to the lunar surface. We felt these bugs needed to be fixed. “

I can’t get it up (into orbit) lol

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2021

Musk took to Twitter to respond to the news in a characteristic expression of cheek bordering on bad taste. “I can’t put it into orbit lol,” he tweeted, citing the fact that Blue Origin didn’t go into orbit with any of its missiles. These include the New Shepard launcher and the New Glenn two-stage rocket, both of which have been in the limbo of development for years.

On April 30, Dynetics followed suit with its own 61-page statement issued by the company’s law firm (Friend, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP) and co-signed by Blue Origin. A copy of the statement was received from Space News, which emphasized that NASA had originally planned to put two companies on “Option A” contracts in order to realize “the advantages of competition in the selection of downs.”

By selecting SpaceX for an Option A contract alone, they claimed NASA had effectively abandoned the ground rules previously established for the program:

“In selecting SpaceX as the only Option A contractor in this second phase for the HLS program (and consequently for the final phase), NASA prematurely abandoned a core element of the acquisition strategy behind the HLS program – i. H. “To create the most competitive environment practicable and to maximize the likelihood of successful development culminating in crewed demonstration missions.”

This relates to what NASA stated in its source selection statement that was attached to the April 16 announcement that it would award the HLS contract to SpaceX. At the beginning of the document, the Source Selection Authority (SSA) states why NASA was forced to give an Option A award instead of two:

“While it remains the agency’s desire to maintain a competitive environment during this phase of the HLS program, NASA’s budget for the current fiscal year doesn’t even have a single initial pricing and milestone payment phases suggested by each Option A provider Option A supports assignment.

“In close coordination with the [Contracting Officer] CO, I was therefore determined that as a first step, NASA should start price negotiations with the Option A provider, which is rated very highly from both a technical and a management point of view and which also had by far the lowest value. proposed price – SpaceX. “

Recognizing the role played by budget constraints and planning changes, Dynetics’ legal representatives further stated that NASA acted in bad faith by failing to investigate the other options available to them. Ultimately, this boils down to consulting the potential contractors and informing them that the situation has changed since the call for contributions on Annex H, NextSTEP-2.

Artist concept of a Human Landing System (HLS). Photo credit: NASA

Or, as they put it, NASA “i) could have changed the call to reflect its new acquisition strategy and budget; (ii) have started discussions with the vendors to inform them of NASA’s new strategy and to give the vendors the opportunity to submit revised proposals; or (iii) withdrew or canceled the solicitation because it was inconsistent with the strict budget constraints of the HLS program. “

Dynetics also agreed with Blue Origin’s views on the technical risks inherent in SpaceX’s design and approach. These risks, they claim, were revealed by the company’s recent flight tests of their Starship prototypes, all four of which exploded during landing (or shortly afterwards):

“SpaceX’s approach posed a high and unacceptable risk to successful contract performance, not the diluted“ weakness ”noted by NASA. Indeed, nothing is mentioned in the source selection statement, let alone takes into account the associated risks associated with the fact that four SpaceX Starship prototypes have exploded in the past four months alone.

“Landing humans on the moon requires a great deal of space systems engineering to identify and mitigate the inherent and significant risks of human space travel, and NASA has provided SpaceX with evidence of the proven lack of such systems engineering.”

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon. Credits: NASA

In response, NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt made a statement on Friday April 30th. “According to the GAO protests,” she said. “NASA has instructed SpaceX to suspend progress on the Human Landing System (HLS) contract until GAO resolves any outstanding litigation related to this procurement.”

Probably some of what was said in the Dynetics Declaration was something below the belt. With the fact that four Starship prototypes exploded trying to hold the landing and to keep SpaceX from getting an HLS contract? That’s just mean! On the other hand, Musk made a thinly veiled impotence joke about Bezos so that nobody’s hands are completely clean here.

And it is possible that NASA is not exercising due diligence to keep everyone informed of the changing situation. That, of course, is far from getting GAO to order a second Option A contract for Dynetics or Blue Origin. However, whether NASA has not acted properly and whether the complainants have reasons for a challenge is a matter for the courts.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the development of the HLS or the Artemis program.

Further reading: Space News

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