What is behind Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s moon feud?

Thanks to protests from two commercial space companies, NASA plans to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 have been put on hold – at least temporarily.

The national team, a multi-company partnership led by Jeff Bezos Blue origin, and Dynetics, an Alabama-based defense contractor, are both screaming scandal over a $ 2.9 billion contract awarded to SpaceX by Elon Musk last month.

Dynetics and Blue Origin have filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA, Bezos’ company accusing the space agency of having “moved the goals at the last minute.”

The coveted contract is for a Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface for NASA. But the ongoing litigation has forced the U.S. space agency to put the brakes on any work related to the contract until GAO delivers its decision, which is expected to be announced by August 4.

“NASA has informed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been put on hold until GAO resolves all outstanding disputes related to this market,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt said in a statement. .

At this time, it’s unclear whether the delay will cause NASA to miss its 2024 target. But it has already sparked a space battle between SpaceX and Blue Origin that has been raging for years – with Musk. openly mocking The locker room style of billionaire Bezos on Twitter. Here’s how the feud started – and what’s at stake.

Race to the moon

NASA plans to return people to the moon for the first time since the days of Apollo as part of its Artemis lunar program. But this time, it will rely on business partners to develop some of the necessary equipment – a first for deep space missions.

Last year, NASA gave three teams a total of $ 967 million and 10 month contracts to develop a potential lunar lander.

SpaceX, the National Team (a partnership between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper) and Dynetics were all vying for a piece of the human landing system pie.

The lander proposed by Blue Origin is shown on the surface of the moon in this illustration. The company is currently contesting the award from NASA, which went to rival company SpaceX [Courtesy: NASA]

To kick off the competition, NASA awarded SpaceX $ 135 million, while Dynetics received $ 253 million and Blue Origin received $ 579 million.

At the time, it was expected that NASA would choose two of the three teams based on several factors, including the cost and technical merit of the proposed landing systems.

SpaceX offered $ 2.89 billion, while Blue Origin came in much higher at $ 5.9 billion and Dynetics was even higher, but its official bid amount was not disclosed.

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was ranked lowest, receiving a technical rating of “marginal”, while SpaceX and Blue Origin received an “acceptable” rating. However, Dynetics’ management rating of “very good” was comparable to that of Blue Origin, while SpaceX was rated “outstanding” in this category.

Budget issues

Had NASA moved forward with its initial plan of choosing two companies, they likely would have been SpaceX and Blue Origin, based on price and technical merit.

The agency has never been forced to choose two companies; however, in other large programs, NASA has selected multiple vendors to promote competition and provide redundancy in the event one of them fails to deliver.

But NASA has struggled to get the budget he needed properly finance the Human Landing System program, asks $ 3 billion for the project of Congress, but only receiving about 25% of that amount, according to a budget analysis by the nonprofit Planetary Society.

NASA relies on its business partners to help transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface, shown in this illustration, for short expeditions as part of its Artemis Moon program. [Courtesy: NASA]

Kathy Leuders, head of human spaceflight at NASA, said such a limited budget has forced the agency to select only one supplier for the time being.

“I don’t have enough funding available to even attempt to negotiate a price with Blue Origin that could potentially allow for a contract award,” Leuders told Al Jazeera.

NASA was left to select the most cost effective and technically feasible option.

“It’s no surprise that NASA decided to go with the cheapest proposal,” Casey Drier, chief counsel for the Planetary Society, told Al Jazeera. “But at the same time, SpaceX performed very well in its technical and management reviews, which also contributed to this selection.”

Unfair advantage?

In their protests filed with the GAO against NASA, Blue Origin and Dynetics claim the agency has given SpaceX an unfair advantage.

Indeed, the agency had to ask SpaceX, which was the lowest bidder, to revise its payment schedule to bring it into line with NASA’s budget.

In its protest filed with GAO, Blue Origin alleged that NASA allowed SpaceX to renegotiate its price without extending the same opportunity to the national team, whose proposal was already significantly more expensive than SpaceX’s.

“Blue Origin was clearly aggrieved by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company wrote in its protest, adding that it “could and would have” reduced its price or offered calendar alternatives if NASA had the opportunity.

The design of Dynetics’ lunar lander is seen in an illustration. The company also filed a protest against NASA for its decision to go with SpaceX. [Courtesy: NASA]

The company also argued that NASA was playing favorites in its assessment of the SpaceX spacecraft. SpaceX is currently one of two companies hired by NASA to send its astronauts to and from the International Space Station and frequently launches other spacecraft for the space agency.

SpaceX plans to use a variant of its spacecraft as the proposed human landing system, which Blue Origin says is “incompatible with other US commercial launchers, further restricting NASA’s alternatives and strengthening SpaceX’s monopoly control. on NASA’s Deep Space Exploration ”.

In her protest, Dynetics noted that she believed that NASA’s initial plan for the competition was the best path for the program’s success and that there were other options the agency could have chosen instead of ‘award the single contract to SpaceX.

Dynetics argued that NASA could have opened the discussion to all bidders on how to modify the proposals to better fit the agency’s budget, which it only did with SpaceX.

“Dynetics has issues and concerns regarding several aspects of the acquisition process as well as elements of NASA’s technical assessment and has filed a protest with GAO to address them,” the company told Al Jazeera in a statement. communicated. “We respect this process and look forward to a fair and informed resolution of the issue.”

Protests like Blue Origin and Dynetics are not uncommon when big contracts and billions of dollars are at stake, but according to GAO data, only 15% of protests submitted in the previous fiscal year were upheld. .

The path to follow

SpaceX did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, but Musk’s recent tweets reportedly indicate that Blue Origin may not have been selected because the company does not yet have a rocket that can reach l ‘orbit.

To be fair, SpaceX’s spacecraft has yet to hit that target, but the company has proven it can send astronauts, cargo, and satellites into orbit on a regular basis.

The company with success brought four astronauts safely back to Earth Sunday after a 167-day stay on the International Space Station. This marked the end of SpaceX’s first long-running NASA mission and is one of three different manned missions the company launched for the space agency in less than a year.

Despite their recent collaboration, Drier said fears that NASA’s burgeoning lunar program could be hampered by choosing only SpaceX could be misplaced.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is the agency’s next moon rocket that will transport astronauts into space [Courtesy: NASA]

NASA plans to send astronauts to the Moon via its own rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS). The massive launcher will surpass the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket in terms of power and carry the agency’s Orion crew capsule to a lunar outpost called the Gateway.

The agency is also relying on business partners to build this mini space station, which would house astronauts and allow them to remain in lunar orbit for long periods of time, which was not possible with the Apollo program.

SpaceX’s role would be to provide taxi service from Gateway to the lunar surface and back. But if Musk and his company can’t deliver the goods on time, that won’t stop NASA from reaching lunar orbit, as NASA will use its own massive rocket to do so.

“Even though SpaceX is falling behind [on the development of Starship]NASA will always have an independent method of sending humans into lunar orbit and to the gateway – two totally different programs, ”Drier explained.

As for NASA, the agency said it was always about competition. The contract awarded to SpaceX covers only two missions: a test mission and an initial crewed mission. Anything beyond that, according to the space agency, will be open to further competition, which means the race for the moon is far from over.

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