back to article Not so fast, SpaceX: $3bn NASA Moon landing contract blocked by rivals' gripes

NASA’s $2.89bn contract awarded to SpaceX for its Starship rocket to send the first American woman and next man to the Moon has been put on ice after SpaceX’s competitors complained to the US Government Accountability Office. “On April 26, NASA was notified that Blue Origin Federation and Dynetics filed protests challenging …

  1. Franklin

    “Dynetics has issues and concerns with several aspects of the acquisition process. Namely, the money is going to someone else. Someone who is not us. We would like that money, please."

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

      They do not mind that SpaceX got an HLS award. They are complaining that only SpaceX got an award.

      Together Dynetics and Blue will probably cause up to 100 days of delays to SpaceX getting any money. They might get some of the costs of making a proposal back. The complaint about NASA telling SpaceX that NASA was short of money and not telling Dynetics/Blue may be a legal foot in the door. It is really silly because congress passed a budget way smaller than NASA asked for. It was obvious months ago to anyone who took even a little interest that NASA could not afford anything like $5.99B for Blue or the currently secret but bigger amount for Dynetics.

      Jeff could throw an extra billion per year to the rest of the Nation Team to make Blue HLS affordable. Dynetics does not appear to have friends with such deep pockets. Blue rather shot themselves in the foot. Although NASA wanted to keep two of the proposals going that was not a cast iron promise in the request for proposals. Blue decided that as NASA was going to select two they had no need to compete with SpaceX. They only had to do a little better than Dynetics.

      Most of the text of these protests is not addressed to the GAO. They are really talking to congress about the threat to the pork supply jobs programs.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

        Yup. I think it's more about NASA changing the rules of the bid, which is a big no-no for government contracts. Which is kinda understandable given NASA's budget process and reliance on government funding. Not sure of the timing, but NASA may have been able to revise the RFP so bidders knew it'd be scored on price, and there'd only be one winner, not two.

        But given the trillions being printed for stimulus and 'new deal' spending, it would have been nice if some of that went NASA's way, and two bidders chosen. I liked Dynetics lander design, and Blue Origin's just done a 100km launch with one of it's vehicles. A Blue Origin-SpaceX deal would provide more competition & pressure for innovation.

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

          If I recall correctly the BO proposal had various advance payments, which were expressly forbidden in the RFP...

          1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

            Re: The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

            I am still only on page 25/175 of Blue's complaint. Blue are saying things like these payments are necessary for long lead time items from subcontractors and that NASA did not complain about them when Blue was selected as one of the three winners of the first round. They reference a bunch of laws and claim that this means these advance payments before milestones are achieved do not count as advanced payments before milestones are achieved.

            Whether or not advance payments are advance payments is something I will leave to the GAO because I do not have the faintest idea. The "NASA did not complain last time" bit came up in a difference context.

            Blue's proposal is also unacceptable because it requires some intellectual property to remain the property of Blue Origin even though NASA legally is required to make it publicly available. This is the sort of thing you put into a proposal so you can charge extra for a fixed price contract when NASA realises it has to buy the IP it forgot to buy at the start. Apparently not noticing this in the first round is not a legal barrier to noticing it in the second round. I assume the same goes for advance payments.

            Both of these barriers are mentioned in the source selection document. Kathy Lueders wrote that this sort of thing can usually be fixed in negotiation with the supplier before making an award but that NASA could not conduct such negotiations in good faith because they could not afford to pay anything close to a fair price for what Blue was offering.

        2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

          Blue and Dynetics talk about NASA changing the rules but as far as I am aware NASA's RFP left things open. If NASA had said single supplier, lowest cost from the beginning they could only have selected one option even though they wanted to select two. A big part of writing an RFP is to not be 100% specific about anything you do not have to be because otherwise it will be used in a complaint after the award. NASA are very experienced in writing RFPs.

          Cost was one of the selection criteria from the start. Blue and Dynetics talk about NASA changing the priorities. As SpaceX came out on top of every criterion we cannot tell if NASA changed priorities.

          Blue and Dynetics talk about strengths and weaknesses of the SpaceX proposal. They should not be able to see a competitor's proposal so they do not know anything more than anyone else outside NASA and SpaceX. From their comments they either know less than the Texas Tankwatchers or are not making full use of what they do know. Those comments are for congress and voters because the GAO will not even look at how NASA assess technical strengths and weaknesses. They will not tell grandma how to suck eggs.

          I would love some competition in the space industry but Dynetics cannot provide that for HLS and Blue would have to really step up their game. HLS is not the only Artemis contract up for grabs. I hope Blue and Dynetics do well on the other contracts such as Lunar Cargo Delivery.

        3. IT Poser

          Re: I think it's more about NASA changing the rules of the bid

          The Cliff's Notes version is NASA was choosing up to two providers for a 2024 landing. Changing the rules would have been changing the 2024 target date. Therefore NASA had to choose zero, one, or two providers that fit within the projected total budget through 2024 of ~$3 bn. Price was the least important of the three categories the providers were scored on but if there wasn't enough money for an proposal there wasn't enough money. As long as SpaceX scored at least acceptable on managerial and technical metrics SpaceX was the only viable option.

          SpaceX was the only provider that received outstanding on the managerial metric. Since Blue and Dynetics were also the lessor options on the second most important they need a win on technical merit to have any leg to stand on.

          Unfortunately for Blue and Dynetics SpaceX was also the best when it comes to technical merit. I could was words describing everything but I have a link to a color coded chart. SpaceX is mostly green while the other two are mostly red.

          https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=46645.msg2222253#msg2222253

          I expect the GAO will dismiss both protests. It's not over for Blue and Dynetics though. NASA has already laid the groundwork to onramp new providers in the services program LETS(Lunar Exploration Transportation Services). This program is structured similar to commercial crew in that it can provide development funds for new landers. Blue and Dynetics need to get to work lobbying Congress for more money if they want this second chance.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: The complaint is more that only SpaceX was selected

        "They are complaining that only SpaceX got an award."

        Good point. How many landers do they need? Even if it's ok to "compete", would NASA even want more than one lander from competing companies? Was there competition last time around?

    2. Chris G Silver badge

      @Franklin

      Exactly what I came here to say.

      It's good to see the maintenance of high levels of pork barrel integrity of those of extending humanity's horizons, for Jeff I doubt it is even about the money, more a fit of pique on the vein of 'Do you know who I am?'.

      1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Not sure this is actualy Jeff

        Blue got the contract to supply engines for ULA's Vulcan rocket and Aerojet Rocketdyne didn't. AR downsized and Blue hired a bunch of ex-AR executives because of their contacts and expertise with government contracts - much to the confusion of many of Blue's employees.

        The US Military requested proposals for a block of large satellite launches. The intent was to combine getting a quantity discount and maintaining competition by selecting exactly two suppliers. Blue's new executives came third. Jeff's long term plans include the moon and Blue's new executives did not win that either.

        There are rumours that Jeff will be taking a more hands-on approach at Blue. He wants a proper rocket company but many of his newer employees' background is with pork. There must be a bunch of people desperate to create some good news before Jeff shows up.

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          I could be completely wrong here

          Teslarati says that Twitter says that Eric Berger says that a source says that Jeff Bezos is livid about this, and views overturning the HLS award as a top priority for Blue Origin. If Teslarati were any more slanted they would be horizontal. The link on that page does not link to Twitter saying Eric Berger said any such thing. Duck duck go hints that Eric Berger said Twitter said that Jeff Foust said that someone said Bezos is furious and I would happily trust Eric if I could actually find a link that points at him saying this.

  2. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    All very Mickey Mouse.

    Why isn’t NASA aiming for standardised systems and multiple suppliers?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Would be nice...

      But SpaceX would likely have people on Mars in the time it would take to agree the standards and for work to get started.

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: standardised systems

      I read almost exactly the same sentence in Blue's complaint. It did not make any sense there either. Starship+Super heavy can lift just about any existing or proposed payload. The biggest barriers are legal and most of those will be dealt with by qualification when SpaceX is in a position to launch something in SS/SH.

      The obvious exception is Orion, mostly because congress insist that there has to be something for SLS to launch and partly because people worked hard to ensure that Orion could not launch on anything but SLS. Starship can easily lift the size and weight but there is no way NASA would put crew in an Orion inside a Starship. Imagine what would happen if Orion's launch abort system activated. Perhaps you could come up with a Frankenrocket with Orion on top of a Starship but it would be far simpler to put the Orion inside and launch the crew separately with Dragon/Falcon 9 (and much cheaper than SLS).

      HLS Starship will be able to dock with Orion if SLS ever launches. Likewise Starship will be able to dock with the lunar gateway if it ever gets assembled. The docking adapter was designed to be androgenous (some implementations are incomplete and can only dock with implementations that do not have the same missing functionality). Blue and Dynetics both have to deal with Orion and LOP-G so presumably they could dock with Starship too.

      If there really is a problem Starship still has plenty of mass margin available to bolt on a fix. Blue can carry flags and footprints but Dynetics has a negative mass margin so cannot carry both.

      I suppose there is a problem from the other direction: only SH can lift Starships and there are plenty of possible payloads that SS/SH can lift (like propellant to get Starship to the Moon) but nothing else can (at a sane price). If only Blue had a great big rocket ...

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: standardised systems

        The biggest barriers are legal and most of those will be dealt with by qualification when SpaceX is in a position to launch something in SS/SH.

        Strap the bunch of lawyers on top of a Falcon 9 and send them up into space. Then just get on with the job

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: lawyers

          In this case the lawyers are doing something useful. The US military have some strange concepts like requiring launch providers to be able to put satellites in orbit without shaking them to bits or photographs of the innards getting sold to the highest bidder. At present they are not working hard on getting Starship qualified for national security payloads but they are paying attention and that attention will turn into activity when SpaceX returns a Tesla Semi from LEO.

    3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Because nothing spacegoing is standard.

      It's always bespoke hardware, and we can't have it otherwise because every company tries to find its own solutions to the various problems.

      It's what we had when we started making tractors and that worked out pretty well.

      1. NotBob

        Until John Fking Deere started this proprietary/DRM crap.

        Please bring your satellite in to an authorized dealer for repairs.

    4. hoola Silver badge

      Because have a standard that applies across all supplies is inconvenient as it prevents lock-in.

      This is all about a single supplier becoming an incumbent and snaffling a nice pile of government lucre. This looks to the be same as the JEDI contract where Amazon promptly starting ranting "It's not fair" when it was awarded to Microsoft.

      Unfortunately once contracts get to these sorts of sizes there are so few with the capability to deliver that unless there is enforced cooperation (never going to happen) there is always going to be someone who is unhappy.

      Maybe NASA should go back to doing it themselves.........

      Good luck with that.

  3. Christoph

    2121

    On the 100th anniversary of the opening of the case, new developments have made SpaceX optimistic that a resolution can finally be reached and the USA can soon establish its own lunar base to join those run by China, Russia, India, the EU, Brazil, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

    1. FeepingCreature

      Re: 2121

      ... And SpaceX.

    2. Ben Bonsall

      Re: 2121

      You forget Scotland, and the Independent Republic of Yorkshire. Their joint reasearch into low gravity batter products directly led to the creation of foamed metal structural beams and extremely low friction materials for pudding tins.

  4. Binraider

    Not really a surprise to see an audit given the value of the decision. However, by failing to compete on price, and not being able to achieve the requested delivery dates; then you have lost the competition, by the terms of the competition.

    This being the likely legal interpretation is one thing, but what about the moral one? A bunch of hard working scientists and engineers working for a company whose income is at risk; at risk of looking for a job.

    The culture of cost cutting through competition rather misses the point of work; to create and distribute wealth. This isn't unique to the space industry, and can be seen just about everywhere.

    The race to the bottom is real and for some reason, we keep voting for it?!

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Race to the bottom

      The SpaceX proposal may have had the lowest price (by a factor of 2) but it was the best by every other criterion. Lowest risk, biggest payloads and real sustainability. I think it would be amazing if people actually voted for the most cost effective projects but SLS is still with us.

      Double definitely yes it is morally correct to stop supporting jobs that are no longer relevant. Normally I would support some sort of retraining scheme but these are skilled aerospace professionals. Imagine what they could do if they were not stuck with dinosaur pork projects. By all means come up with things for them to build but please lets not build more government rockets that cannot compete with Falcon 9 let alone Starship.

    2. Chris G Silver badge

      "to create and distribute wealth"

      I think that notion lost ground before the turn of the century, it certainly has since.

      Corporate morals seem to have got to the level of a playground bully with an "Aww I wanted that" attitude backed up with a team of avaricious lawyers.

    3. rg287 Silver badge

      This being the likely legal interpretation is one thing, but what about the moral one? A bunch of hard working scientists and engineers working for a company whose income is at risk; at risk of looking for a job.

      That's the risk you take with a contract-engineering business model. If the contract falls through, your income dries up.

      SpaceX have built an independent space launch business and will shortly own an extremely lucrative satellite broadband business. For them, winning these sorts of contracts is a matter of speeding up existing projects. It's not their "mortgage money" that underpins the solvency of the organisation. One can make an argument that NASA should be pushing out contracts to other companies to spur on innovation and explore alternative approaches (which was the point of the competition - to lower technical risk). But that requires Congress to make the funding available.

      At the end of the day, the contest is to land humans on the moon. SpaceX have orbital class rockets - Blue/Dynetics don't. SpaceX have landed and re-used those orbital-class rockets (albeit on Earth) - Blue/Dynetics have not. If the budget gets crunched, SpaceX are the ones who are most capable of making this happen on time(ish) and on budget(ish). And what's more important is it's an extension of an existing project - SpaceX have skin in the game.

      Perhaps Dynetics (or at least the Space Solutions division) should take a look at their own business model and consider developing a sustainable, independent source of income to support their more transitory government contract/work-for-hire business. Blue Origin are likewise welcome to start launching payloads on that rocket they've been developing for two decades and wean themselves off the bank of Bezos. I would welcome their transition into an actual rocket company that - y'know, builds and launches orbital rockets. That's not a criticism of the undoubtedly skilled and talented engineers at both firms. Just a raised eyebrow at the way the leadership runs the business.

  5. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Coat

    Virgin Galactic

    I'm surprised Branson's "space" outfit hasn't chipped in with a proposal for a share of the pork...

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/02/will-virgin-galactic-ever-lift-off-richard-bransons-space-mission-is-still-stuck-on-earth

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Virgin Galactic

      Perhaps they will for some other part of Artemis, but not HLS. Virgin Galactic split and retains the joy-ride hardware and commitments with the orbital launch hardware going to Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit split and has a subsidiary called VOX space with a contract to launch 44 cube sats for the US military. VOX space stands some chance of coming in second to Rocket Lab. Several companies are trying to come second to Rocket Lab but Virgin Orbit needs some way to separate their large R&D cost history from future prices.

      Rocket Lab also makes satellites and provides communications hardware on the ground. It is possible that some other satellite manufacture with an Artemis contract will avoid buying launch from a competitor and select VOX (or who ever actually ends up second) instead.

  6. Richard 12 Silver badge

    Dynetics need to magically remove mass from their design. That's a massive red flag! What do they do when they find other issues? Everyone else can spend a little mass margin to fix it, they can't.

    National Team/Blue Origin demanded advance payments when the terms specifically said that wasn't an option. Not to mention the IP issues. Their legal team clearly can't read.

    Seriously guys, if you can't follow the rules you won't get the pork.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      I think Blue legal team can read but they bid as if NASA had to buy two so they 'knew' they could get away with a fat non-compliant bid and still come in second. Either second because the SpaceX contraption is too novel or second because Dynetics solved some problems brilliantly but need to come up with many more brilliant solutions than they have time or staff to handle.

  7. 0laf Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Even in Space...

    Even in space procurement can make you scream.

    But it's not really a shock they are all fighting to get into the pork barrel.

  8. iron Silver badge

    How many people have you sent to space Jeff?

    How about you hire some rocket scientists and actually build a rocket that goes to space (not almost space like Virgin) rather than hiring lawyers. Failing that leave the NASA contracts to SpaceX - they actually have rockets, all you have is BO.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      How about you hire some rocket scientists and actually build a rocket that goes to space (not almost space like Virgin) rather than hiring lawyers. Failing that leave the NASA contracts to SpaceX - they actually have rockets, all you have is BO.

      But Blue Origin has rockets. It launched a New Shephard to 107km with a simulated crew capsule. Starship's only managed to launch scrap 10km so far.

      OK, that's perhaps a little unfair, and SN15 may land in once piece later today. But for some reason, SpaceX seems to exist in a seperate reality and it's fanbase seems willing to overlook Musk's forward-looking statements. There's a long way to go yet before Starship lands boots on the Moon.

      Which is why it makes sense to hedge your bets. SpaceX may well fail, so might Blue Origin. But they've also been doing much the same as SpaceX with re-use, and supplying engines to other launches. Then again, in some ways, Blue Origin may prefer to focus on un-manned launches given there's less reputational risk by not killing astronauts.. But then again, with CEOs-as-sociopaths, Bezos and Musk may just be interested in dick size wars.

      1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

        Apples and oranges

        Getting to orbit requires going up and going fast. You need about thirty times as much fast as up. New Shepard can go up but will never go fast. The capsule can come down (and land on land!) but not if it somehow was going fast enough for orbit. The correct apple to compare that orange to is Dragon/Falcon which can do the up, the fast and approximately the back again (needs some help from some boats to get back to land).

        So far Starship has been limited to 10km because if it went higher and exploded it could drop chunks of steel onto people who aren't SpaceX employees. Even on its own Starship can go up and almost fast enough for orbit (with no payload, flaps, heat shield or landing legs). The correct orange to compare it to is stage 2 of New Glenn. There are some chunks of metal that might be pieces of a New Glenn or pieces of a manufacturing test article (BO is not as open/blatant/in your face as SpaceX). Blue has been around longer than SpaceX but New Glenn stage 2 will not launch until at least Q4 2022 and in not designed to land at all.

        Comparing raptor and BE-4 engines is a bit more tricky. Both are still in development. Some of the figures for Raptor are informed guesses from seeing it fly. Many of the rumours about BE-4 are uninformed speculation from not seeing it fly (ULA says Q4 2021).

        "Funding secured" guy recently demonstrated again that he still needs adult supervision on the internet so Jeff is well ahead on that one.

        I would love to see some diversity and competitive pricing for Artemis HLS but I just don't expect it any time soon from the National Team or congress. Perhaps in a few years there will be a real direct competitor to SpaceX - probably when Rocket Lab decides to build something big but possibly something Blue if they actually focus on flying an orbital class rocket.

        Texas tank watchers are well aware of how much more work Starship needs: orbital launch platform, super heavy booster, reach orbit, heat shield that survives re-entry, controlled hypersonic flight, pitch up, landing, stronger legs, in orbit re-fuelling, deep space navigation, moon landing thrusters and long duration life support (much better than Dragon). They are enthusiastic because they can see SpaceX making progress. They would be just as enthusiastic if they could see one tenth of that progress from Blue. (The Teslarati crowd would probably embarrass me and confirm all your worst opinions of Musk fans.)

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Apples and oranges

          Perhaps in a few years there will be a real direct competitor to SpaceX - probably when Rocket Lab decides to build something big but possibly something Blue if they actually focus on flying an orbital class rocket.

          There already are competitors, but perhaps less well supplied with pork than SpaceX. One of the reasons I dislike Musk is his ventures have all been pretty much subsidised by taxpayers. Since launching the Model S, he's consistently lost money on every car. AFAIK Blue Origin has customers for orbital launches, but doesn't seem to be in as much hurry to make scrap as SpaceX.

          Which I guess gets interesting given Blue Origin's role as an engine supplier to competing platforms, like ULA's Vulcan. But that's also one of those market and competition things. There's a finite market for launches, and picking winners can get problematic.

          The Teslarati crowd would probably embarrass me and confirm all your worst opinions of Musk fans

          I doubt it'd change my opinion much. It was embarassing enough half-listening to comments prior to SN15's launch being scrubbed. I'm sure Elon's working on weather control though..

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmJIccPWnEk

  9. Tessier-Ashpool

    Boom!

    I've not been paying too much attention to these efforts lately, but which one is it that keeps blowing up on the launchpad or landing? Are they one of the plaintiffs?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Boom!

      The defendant is NASA. The plaintiffs are Dynetics and Blue Origin (head of the National) team.

      Dynetics are not in the launch (from Earth) or land (on Earth) business but have done a variety of impressive space related projects.

      Blue have successfully launched payloads to space (not orbit) and landed them on Earth again. They might have a really big orbital rocket ready eventually and stage one of that rocket is designed to land on Earth and be re-used. Perhaps that will explode a few times before they get it working but you will have to wait until at least Q4 2022 to find out.

      Other members of the national team (like ULA and Boeing) have done impressive things in space and operate old expensive expendable rockets reliably (rockets that used to explode when they were new designs). ULA will launch a new rocket design (Vulcan) perhaps as early as the end of this year. It may or may not explode a few times before they get it working. Boeing might one day launch the SLS rocket (do not hold your breath). If it explodes it will be at least a year before they can have another one ready to launch/explode.

      Dynetics and Blue are complaining because NASA awarded the Artemis HLS contract only to SpaceX. SpaceX operate the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets that have the highest flight cadence and lowest insurance rates in the world. Falcon rocket first stages have landed on Earth over 80 times. Even though falcon heavy is the biggest rocket currently in operation it is too small for a return trip to the moon in one launch.

      The rocket you see exploding every month is a SpaceX Starship. That is the one that NASA is going to hire for their ride from near the Moon to the Moon and back to near the Moon. Although Starship is much bigger than a Falcon Heavy it is still cheaper to build and blow up. So far each Starship that has blown up has done so for a different reason (some have flown a short distance and landed before being scrapped or retired). It has been months since one blew up on the launch pad. In the current plan for Artemis there will be no astronauts in a Starship when it lands/explodes back on Earth. You can probably look forward to several more entertaining Starship explosions until SpaceX discover and fix every possible reason why a Starship can explode. Do not expect such a spectacular test program from any of the others as their factories cannot produce new rockets fast or cheap enough.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: Boom!

        @Flocke Kroes: excellent summary. Thank you. Have as many upvotes as I can give you, plus one of these ---->

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