NASA has suspended the contract with SpaceX for the landing system to take astronauts down to and back from the moon’s surface. Two other competitors for the contract, Blue Origin and Dynetics, have filed protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA issued a stop order until GAO resolves the case.
NASA awarded ten months contracts to three companies a year ago today to further develop its concepts for Human Landing Systems (HLS) as part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface: SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin’s National Team ”. which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft will take crew to lunar orbit, but they will complete the journey using HLS.
Two weeks ago, NASA chose SpaceX to continue the development and awarded it a fixed-price contract of $ 2.99 billion. It is only for the first Artemis landing and a precursor unmanned flight test. NASA issues a separate request for landing systems for future missions.
On Monday, Blue Origin and Dynetics protested with GAO that NASA̵
NASA has now asked SpaceX to stop work until GAO decides the outcome. A NASA spokesman made the statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com this afternoon.
“In accordance with the GAO Protests, NASA instructed SpaceX to suspend progress on the HLS contract until GAO resolves any outstanding lawsuits related to this acquisition.”
The release of the stop work order was first reported by Space News.
GAO has 100 days – until August 4, 2021 – to make a decision.
SpaceX is already testing prototypes of the Starship system using its own resources. A number of tests have been performed at the Starbase test site in Boca Chica, TX. Starship is designed to be reusable, so that it not only launches, but lands. All of the last four tests of prototypes with three engines have started and flown well, but the landing resulted in spectacular explosions. SpaceX sees these flaws as learning experiences and simply moves on to the next prototype. The stop-work order may not have much effect since these tests were planned before the award of the contract. The next is expected imminent.
NASA had previously insisted that they would choose two winners, not one, to ensure redundancy. The decision in favor of just SpaceX surprised everyone.
NASA’s Source Selection Statement (SSS) explained that it simply did not have enough money to continue with two. For FY2021, Congress allocated only 25 percent ($ 850 million) of the $ 3.4 billion NASA requested for HLS. SSS said that the agency barely had enough of SpaceX’s bid, which was the lowest, and added that it had returned to SpaceX to request a best and final offer, but not the other two companies. SpaceX did not change the price, but changed when payments were due.
Blue Origin made an edited version of its protest available on Monday with a list of the reasons for its protest. One issue is that the funding deficit changed NASA’s requirements, and all providers should have had a chance to see their bids again.
Dynetics did not make a copy of the protest publicly available, but two news organizations, Politico and Space News, published stories with links to it today. Among its claims, Dynetics says that NASA “apparently abandoned the basic rules they had established for this program” due to the lack of funding, which made the program as intended “no longer executable.” Therefore, NASA should have changed the request to reflect the new budget outlook, opened discussions with the providers and allowed them to resubmit their proposals, or withdraw or cancel the request completely and restarted.
Both companies also claimed that NASA’s evaluation of their merits proposal was incorrect. NASA ranked the proposals on three factors: technical, price and management method. SpaceX came in second, Blue Origin came in second and Dynetics came in third.
SSS only revealed SpaceX’s $ 2.99 billion price tag, adding that Blue Origin was significantly higher than SpaceX, and Dynetics’ was significantly higher than Blue Origin.
On Monday, when it filed its protest, Blue Origin revealed that the price was $ 5.99 billion. Dynetics has not shared the bid.
The Trump administration has asked NASA to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. The Biden administration supports Artemis, but has not specified what time frame it has in mind. Many are skeptical that 2024 is technically or budgetarily achievable, but current NASA officials and incoming NASA administrator Bill Nelson claim it is a possibility. Even some senators at Nelson’s confirmation hearing pushed for that date, even though it was Congress that drastically cut HLS funding last year, making such a timeline even less credible.
Hopefully, the Biden administration will lay out its plan in the near future when Congress begins to consider the FY2022 budget request. The administration proposed a 6.3 percent increase for NASA, a total of $ 24.7 billion, of which $ 6.9 billion is for Artemis. That’s $ 325 million more than what Congress approved last year, but far less than the Trump administration’s estimate last year would be needed to get American boots on the Moon in 2024.
Last updated: April 30, 2021 17:26 ET