Within the last week, while SpaceX has been diligently working to ready an upgraded Starship prototype for its first launch, former competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics – both of which recently lost a historic NASA Moon lander contract to SpaceX – have filed “protests” and forced the space agency to freeze work (and funds).
That means that NASA is now legally unable to use funds or resources related to its Human Lander System (HLS) program or the $2.9 billion contract it awarded SpaceX on April 16th to develop a variant of Starship to return humanity to the Moon. However, just like SpaceX has already spent a great deal of its own time and money on Starship development and – more recently – a rapid-fire series of launches, the company appears to have no intention of letting sore losers hamper its rocket factory or test campaign.
Instead, on the same two days Blue Origin and Dynetics loudly filed official protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), SpaceX performed two back-to-back static fire tests with a Starship prototype and Raptor engines outfitted with “hundreds of improvements.” Technical challenges and unsavory weather conditions forced SpaceX to call off a launch planned sometime last week but the company now appears to be on track to launch Starship prototype SN15 as early as Tuesday, May 4th.
In principle, the ability for companies to protest US government contracting decisions is a necessity and (nominally) a net good but it can easily be misused – and often in damaging ways. In the case of Blue Origin and Dynetics, it’s difficult not to perceive both protests as examples of the latter.
Blue Origin effectively disagrees with every single major point made and conclusion drawn by NASA’s Source Selection Authority (Kathy Lueders) and a separate panel of experts – often to the point that the company is strongly implying that it understands NASA’s contracting process better than the space agency itself. Blue Origin partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are both partially or fully responsible for several of their own catastrophic acquisition boondoggles (F-35, Orion, SLS, James Webb Space Telescope, and are part of the military-industrial complex primarily responsible for turning US military and aerospace procurement into the quagmire of political interests, quasi-monopolies, and loopholes it is today.
The primary argument is generally shared by both protestors. In essence, Dynetics [p. 23; PDF] and Blue Origin [PDF] believe that it was unfair or improper for NASA to select just a single provider from the three companies or groups that competed. They argue that downselecting to one provider in lieu of budget shortfalls changed the procurement process and competition so much that NASA should have effectively called it quits and restarted the entire five-month process. Blue Origin and Dynetics also both imply that they were somehow blindsided by NASA’s concerns about a Congressional funding shortfall.
In reality, NASA could scarcely have been clearer that it was exceptionally sensitive about HLS funding and extremely motivated to attempt to return humans to the Moon by 2024 with or without the full support of Congress – albeit in fewer words. As Lueders herself noted in the HLS Option A award selection statement, the solicitation Blue, Dynetics, and SpaceX responded to states – word for word – that “the overall number of awards will be dependent upon funding availability and evaluation results.”
Additionally, implications that NASA somehow blindsided offerors with its lack of funding are woefully ignorant at best and consciously disingenuous at worse. Anyone with even the slightest awareness of the history of large-scale NASA programs would know that the space agency’s budget is all but exclusively determined by Congress each year and liable to change just as frequently if political winds shift. Short of blackmailing members of Congress or wistfully hoping that other avenues of legal political influence and partnership actually lead to desired funding and priorities appearing in appropriations legislation, NASA knows the future of its budget about as well as anyone else with access to the internet and a rudimentary awareness of history and current events.
It became clear that Congress was likely to drastically underfund NASA’s HLS program as early as November 2020 – weeks before HLS Option A proposals were due. The latest appropriations bill was passed on January 3rd, 2021, providing NASA $850 million of the ~$3.4 billion it requested for HLS. Historically, NASA’s experience with the Commercial Crew Program – public knowledge available to anyone – likely made it clear to the agency that it could not trust Congress to fund its priorities in good faith when half a decade of drastic underfunding ultimately delayed the critical program by several years. That damage was done by merely halving NASA Commercial Crew budget request from 2010 to 2013, whereas Congress had already set itself on a path to provide barely a quarter of the HLS funds NASA asked for in the weeks before Moon lander proposals were due.
Ultimately, the protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics are packed to the brim with petty axe-grinding, attempts to paint SpaceX in a negative light, and a general lack of indication that either company is operating in good faith. Instead, their protests appear all but guaranteed to fail while simultaneously forcing NASA to freeze HLS work and delay related disbursements for up to 100 days. Given that SpaceX is now technically working to design, build, qualify, and fly an uncrewed Lunar Starship prototype by 2023 and a crewed demonstration landing by 2024, 100 days represents a full 7-10% of the time that’s available to complete that extraordinary task.
Ironically, the protests made by Blue Origin and Dynetics have already helped demonstrate why NASA’s decision – especially in light of unambiguous budgetary restrictions – to sole-source its HLS Moon lander contract to SpaceX was an astute one. Had a victorious Blue Origin or Dynetics been in a similar position to SpaceX, it’s almost impossible to imagine either team continuing work to a significant degree in lieu of NASA funding or direction. SpaceX, on the other hand, hasn’t missed a beat and looks set to continue Starship development, production, and testing around the clock regardless of NASA’s capacity to help.
In other words, with a little luck, the actual schedule impact of a maximum 100-day work and funding freeze should be a tiny fraction of what it could have been if NASA had selected an HLS provider more interested in profit margins and stock buybacks than creating a sustainable path for humanity’s expansion beyond Earth.