The billionaire space battle just got kicked up a notch, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture challenging NASA’s award of a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX — and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replying with a double entendre.
Monday’s contretemps in commercial space began when Blue Origin sent the Government Accountability Office a 50-page filing (plus more than 100 pages’ worth of attachments) claiming that NASA improperly favored SpaceX in the deliberations that led to this month’s single-source award.
A team led by Blue Origin — with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper as partners — had competed for a share of NASA funding to develop a system capable of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s. Alabama-based Dynetics was also in the competitiion, and has also filed a protest with the GAO.
Both protests contend that NASA was wrong to make only one contract award, despite Congress’ less-than-expected support levels, due to the importance of promoting competition in the lunar lander market. Both protests also contest many of the claims NASA made in a document explaining its selection process. For example, Blue Origin says NASA erroneously determined that it was seeking advance payments for development work.
Although both protests delve deeply into the details of procurement, Blue Origin’s challenge has an added twist of personal rivalry.
Over the past decade, Bezos and Musk have repeatedly butted heads over their rival space programs, and Musk has usually prevailed. It was SpaceX, not Blue Origin, that won NASA’s nod to use Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Pad 39A in 2013. Two years later, SpaceX turned back Blue Origin’s effort to patent the procedure for landing a rocket at sea. And last year, Blue Origin lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in a multibillion-dollar competition for rocket development support from the U.S. Space Force.
This week’s protest sets off a 100-day clock for the GAO to weigh whether NASA’s contract award should be reversed. And if history is any guide, the decision is likely to stand — although the fact that SpaceX revised its contract bid after confidential discussions with NASA could complicate the case.
“We didn’t get a chance to revise and that’s fundamentally unfair,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told The New York Times.
In response to GeekWire’s inquiry, NASA said it couldn’t comment on the protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics “due to pending litigation.” SpaceX and Blue Origin didn’t immediately respond to GeekWire’s email inquiries.
However, Musk twisted the knife a bit on Twitter, using a phrase with sexual overtones to note that Blue Origin hasn’t yet launched a rocket to orbit.
“Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol,” he wrote.
Musk’s comments to The Washington Post addressed questions about Blue Origin’s protest more directly. He referred to the fact that Blue Origin’s team was seeking $6 billion from NASA to develop its lunar lander.
“The BO bid was just way too high,” said Musk, referring to Blue Origin by its initials. “Double that of SpaceX and SpaceX has much more hardware progress.”
SpaceX has proposed adapting its Starship super-rocket for NASA’s use as a lunar lander. The next in a series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes is scheduled to take place in Texas this week.
Musk also noted that Bezos has announced he’ll step down from his CEO post at Amazon in June, in order to spend more time on Blue Origin and his other non-Amazon pursuits.
“I think he needs to run BO full time for it to be successful. Frankly, I hope he does,” Musk told the Post.