The bid protest is the latest in a string of high-profile fights over the lucrative Pentagon missions. For years, the Defense Department relied on a single company, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Then, in 2014, SpaceX filed a lawsuit, saying it should be allowed to compete. Eventually, it settled with the Air Force and has competed for several missions, driving down the price.
Currently, ULA and SpaceX are the only companies certified to fly national security missions, though last year, Blue Origin, Northrup Grumman and ULA won contracts to develop rockets that meet the Pentagon’s national security launch requirements.
The Pentagon, however, plans next year to choose only two providers in the next round of contracts, sparking Blue Origin’s protest, an indication that the company fears it won’t be among the winners, in part because the Air Force is allowing bidders to offer a backup rocket. Blue Origin’s rocket, known as New Glenn, is not expected to fly until 2021.
“Unless the Air Force changes its approach, this procurement will perpetuate a market duopoly in national security space launch well into the next decade, causing higher launch prices, less assured access to space and a missed opportunity to expand our national security interests and bolster U.S. leadership in space,” Blue Origin said in a fact sheet given to reporters.
Despite the protest, Blue Origin said it submitted a bid for the launch contracts.
For months, Blue Origin has been lobbying members of Congress and the Pentagon to slow down the procurement. The company, which is based outside of Seattle, has enlisted the support of Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who earlier this year wrote a letter to the Air Force saying he was concerned it was moving too fast “in a way that risks undermining the Air Force’s goal of maximizing and sustaining fair and open competition.”
The Air Force previously has defended its program as fair and vital to national security. The Air Force declined to comment for this story.
Blue Origin isn’t the only company challenging the Air Force. Earlier this year, SpaceX filed a protest after it was left out of the initial round of funding the Air Force awarded to help companies develop their rockets. That lawsuit, filed in the Court of Federal Claims, is ongoing.