The bid protest draws attention the high stakes competition for the military launch contracts and could help re-shape the industry, as a handful of deep-pocketed companies fight for dominance in a broader $4 billion-a-year military space market.
Currently, there are only two companies certified to compete for the Air Force launch contracts, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. ULA and Lockheed are the largest recipients of military space funding by a wide margin, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Government. Blue Origin has received about $180 million from the Defense Department so far in 2019, compared to $1.6 billion for United Launch Alliance.
The Air Force is looking to expand the number of potential bidders for the next round of contracts to include Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin, both of which are developing new rockets with significant Air Force investment.
Ultimately, though, starting next year the Air Force intends to choose just two companies for its next patch of contracts, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In its ruling, released publicly Nov. 15, the GAO denied many of Blue Origin’s arguments, but upheld one about the selection criteria used to pick the two companies that would be able to compete for the launch contracts. As part of the selection criteria, the Air Force said it was going to not only evaluate the strength each company’s offering individually but also what ones provided the best value “when combined” with another.
The GAO found that since the companies’ bids are proprietary it would be impossible for them to know how they best combined with another offering. “Indeed, short of colluding with other potential offerors to coordinate their respective proposals, it is not apparent how an offeror could intelligently compete,” the GAO found.
In a statement, Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition chief said the service would amend the solicitation and that it would not “materially delay” the award. “The Air Force will evaluate each offeror independently against the RFP evaluation criteria based on the merits of its own proposal and will amend the solicitation to make clear that each award will be made solely on the basis of the defined criteria,” he said.
Blue Origin welcomed the decision. “We want to thank GAO for their careful consideration of these serious issues, thoroughly reviewing the facts of the case, and recognizing the importance of ensuring evaluation criteria that are unambiguous and comply with federal procurement statutes and regulations,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a statement. “This is an important mission to Blue Origin, and we remain committed to our long-term partnership with the Air Force and to working with them as they address the GAO’s recommendations.”
In announcing the protest in August, before any contracts were even awarded, Blue Origin said in a statement that “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.”
It’s the second large-scale Pentagon contract that has drawn a legal challenge from Bezos.
Earlier this month, Amazon said it would challenge the award to rival Microsoft of a contract to provide cloud-computing services to the Pentagon worth as much as $10 billion. Amazon, whose Amazon Web Services (AWS) subsidiary has deep experience in cloud computing, said the Pentagon decision was tainted by “unmistakable bias” and “political influence.”
Unlike AWS, one of the nation’s largest cloud providers, Blue Origin is a relative newcomer to the national security launch industry. Its New Glenn rocket is not expected to fly until 2021, and it is only beginning to enter the market and line up customers.
For a decade, ULA had a virtual monopoly on the contracts until SpaceX came along. Musk sued the Air Force in 2014 for the right to compete. The parties settled, and SpaceX has competed for several missions.