NASA had said that it ran a thorough competition for what is known as the Human Landing System and that SpaceX not only had the best technical solution, but its bid also was by far the lowest. In its ruling, the GAO rejected Blue Origin’s arguments that the space agency had overlooked the company’s attributes, writing in a news release that it concluded “that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award.”
It said NASA’s “evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation and the announcement’s terms.”
At the time of the award, NASA officials said that they had initially intended to award two contracts to foster competition as well as to have a backup in case one of the contractors faltered. The agency awarded only one contract, however, because it did not have the funding from Congress, and it was able to do that only after SpaceX updated its payment schedule to fit NASA’s budget.
Even though Blue Origin’s bid was $6 billion, or twice SpaceX’s, Bezos has since tried to remedy the budget shortfall as part of a broad effort to force NASA to select a second company. In an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson this week, he wrote that if NASA awarded the company a lunar lander contract, Blue Origin would continue to fund the development of a test flight of its spacecraft to low Earth orbit and waive up to $2 billion in payments over the next two years.
In the letter, he continued to criticize NASA’s selection process and argued that having two providers was vital: “Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.” And he touted the capabilities of the team Blue Origin had assembled, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
NASA has said that after the next human landing on the moon, the first since the last Apollo mission in 1972, it will hold additional competitions for future moon landings as part of its Artemis program. But Bezos said the program “won’t create true competition because it is rushed, it is unfunded, and it provides a multiyear head-start to the one funded, single-source supplier.”
On Friday, Blue Origin said in a statement that it would continue to press for NASA to award a second contract. “We’ve been encouraged by actions in Congress to add a second provider and appropriate additional resources to NASA’s pursuit to return Americans to the Moon,” the statement said. "The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later — that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.
Landing astronauts on the moon is a personal passion for Bezos, who has said that watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the moon in 1969 ignited in him a lifelong interest in space. He picked the anniversary of that Apollo 11 mission, July 20, to fly on his company’s New Shepard spacecraft on a suborbital trip to space and back. And now that he has stepped down as chief executive of Amazon, he has said he will devote more time and energy to Blue Origin, which has lagged far behind SpaceX.
But just hours after touching down in a successful flight, he created controversy by thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this.”
That was widely regarded as a tone-deaf statement, and it elicited ire from detractors, including U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) who on Twitter linked to an article about how much Amazon employees are paid and wrote, “While Jeff Bezos is all over the news for paying to go to space, let’s not forget the reality he has created here on Earth.”
Under the Trump administration, the goal was to land astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. Nelson, the NASA administrator, has also embraced that timeline. But the space agency has been conducting an internal review about what is feasible, given the amount of funding it has from Congress.
In a statement Friday, NASA said the GAO’s “decision enables NASA to award the contract that will ultimately result in the first crewed demonstration landing on the surface of the moon under NASA’s Artemis plan. Importantly, the GAO’s decision will allow NASA and SpaceX to establish a timeline for the first crewed landing on the Moon in more than 50 years.”