On Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its full but redacted decision in favor of NASA selecting a human landing system contractor. The document (see PDF) makes it clear that SpaceX offered NASA the most technically ready, best managed, and least expensive option.
Further, the ruling document says NASA was well justified in selecting a single winner for the lunar lander bid, as Congress only appropriated about a quarter of the funds sought by the agency. spatial. NASA, the document says, “expressly warned all bidders that the number of awards was subject to available funding, and the agency could award multiple contracts, a single award, or no award.”
As it has done on several occasions since NASA’s initial decision to select SpaceX in April, Blue Origin hailed GAO’s comprehensive decision with a difficult response. “We maintain our assessment that SpaceX has received preferential treatment,” the statement says, in part.
Blue Origin is clearly not giving up on the Human Landing System contract, nor is it hesitant to continue attacking NASA and its choice of SpaceX to build the lander, even if it now seems like a lost hope. NASA made its decision in April. And now the GAO has looked into the matter and found NASA’s decision to be sound and justified.
So what the hell are Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos up to? Why does her company continue to look like a sore loser in the industry and keep insulting an important NASA client? I have a theory.
In 2004, a company named Kistler Aerospace won a $ 227 million contract from NASA to complete development of its K-1 rocket and deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The agency justified the contract by the fact that no other American company had a launcher nearing completion. At the time, Kistler claimed that about 75% of the design of the K-1 rocket was complete. The company had invested around $ 600 million over the previous decade to reach this advanced stage of development.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk greeted the announcement angrily. Although SpaceX was only two years old and wouldn’t make its first attempt to launch Falcon 1 for two years, Musk believed NASA awarded Kistler the contract due to patronage. (The CEO of the company was George Mueller, an Apollo program leader and a longtime NASA insider). Musk felt that SpaceX should have been allowed to compete for the contract.
“A lot of people have told me that we shouldn’t protest,” Musk told me for the book Liftoff, on the origins of SpaceX. “You have a 90% chance of losing. You are going to make a potential customer angry. I’m like, it looks like ‘just’ is on our side here. It looks like it should come out for competition. And if we don’t fight that, I think we’re doomed, or our chances of success are drastically reduced. NASA being one of the biggest customers of space launch would be cut off from us. I had to protest.
He did, and ultimately SpaceX won. After learning that GAO would vote in favor of SpaceX, NASA awarded the award to Kistler and initiated a new process that became known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS. SpaceX won one of these awards in 2006, and it helped the company grow quickly while providing much-needed funding as SpaceX went through its Falcon 1 startup pains. COTS led to operational contracts to deliver cargo and crew at the space station. These contracts have been critical to SpaceX’s financial success.
Jeff Bezos knows his space history. And it examines how SpaceX was able to leverage federal contracts in rapid growth and hardware development programs with envy.
So it seems likely to me that Bezos sees the Human Landing System contract as COTS for Blue Origin. If the company could win this award, it would have a path forward to future NASA contracts and the funding that would follow.
The problem for Bezos is that the US aerospace industry is very different today than it was in 2004. SpaceX and a host of other new space companies have emerged, and NASA is no longer in desperate need of suppliers. space services. In addition, NASA do have a competition for services with the lunar lander. It’s just that there was only money for one supplier. The GAO decision reinforces this conclusion.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Blue Origin’s COTS moment is this: SpaceX is still SpaceX, still the upstart, and still on the move all these years later.
This means that Blue Origin is not the upstart. Rather, he fits more comfortably into the role of Kistler, a company that has spent large sums of money over a decade to build an orbital rocket that remains a few years from the launch pad.