Redacted versions of documents relating to Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit against the federal government and SpaceX provide additional details about the dispute over a multibillion-dollar NASA lunar lander contract, but the details left out are arguably just as intriguing.
The 59-page text of the Blue Origin-led industry consortium’s complaint, which was filed in August, was released today by the United States Court of Federal Appeals. The court also made available redacted responses from SpaceX.
The filings center on NASA’s decision in April to award SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop its Starship super-rocket as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed trip to the lunar surface, planned for as early as 2024.
NASA stated at the time that SpaceX’s proposal was technically superior to Blue Origin and its partners — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper — as well as another competitor, Dynetics. Blue Origin’s team proposed $5.9 billion for its landing system, which SpaceX beat out. Draper’s proposal was even more costly.
The initial hope was that NASA would make multiple awards in order to promote competition and have a Plan B. However, space agency officials claim that Congress only appropriated enough funds to make one award.
Blue Origin complained to the Government Accountability Office that NASA did not properly evaluate the proposals and that SpaceX was given the opportunity to restructure its bid to fit NASA’s budget. The GAO ruled in favor of NASA and SpaceX, allowing the contract award to stand, but Blue Origin then took the dispute to federal court.
Blue Origin’s lawsuit addresses the aforementioned talking points, but it focuses primarily on waivers issued by NASA relating to “supporting spacecraft” that appear to be used in conjunction with SpaceX’s landing system. The court blacked out information about those who support spacecraft.
The lawsuit claims that by issuing waivers for individual flight readiness reviews and “other review requirements” for the supporting spacecraft, SpaceX gained an unfair competitive advantage. “Blue Origin and Dynetics did not have the opportunity to compete with the waived requirements that the Agency provided to SpaceX,” it says. “Had Blue Origin had such an opportunity, it would have been able to propose a significantly lower price…”
So, what exactly is the assisting spacecraft? References to SpaceX’s moon-landing Starship and a tanker version of the same spacecraft that would be used for in-flight refueling were left unredacted, implying that they aren’t in question. The redacted document makes no mention of SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster, but speculating on whether that is the sticking point is purely speculative.
Blue Origin requests that the court issue an order suspending SpaceX’s work on the lunar lander contract and giving the competitors an equal opportunity to discuss their proposals with NASA. If the order is issued in the manner proposed by Blue Origin, the competitors will submit “final proposal revisions” to NASA, and the space agency will make a new award determination.
SpaceX claims in one of its responses to the complaint that Blue Origin is relying on a “flawed interpretation” of NASA’s solicitation —an interpretation that was “unfortunately adopted by GAO” in its ruling.
SpaceX also claims that the unredacted version of Blue Origin’s complaint should be kept sealed because it would reveal proprietary and confidential information to Blue Origin. Richard Hertling, the case’s judge, agreed with SpaceX on the redaction issue.
The court is expected to hear oral arguments in October, with a decision expected in early November. Meanwhile, NASA has awarded $146 million in fixed-price contracts to Blue Origin, SpaceX, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman as part of a follow-up program aimed at improving the space agency’s lunar landing capabilities.