Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket business, has sued the United States government in federal court to overturn NASA’s decision to award a contract for a lunar lander to SpaceX – a move that is likely to delay the United States’ return to the moon even more.
Bezos’ firm requested that the lawsuit be filed under secret on Friday, and U.S. Federal Claims Court Judge Richard Hertling granted that request Monday morning.
According to Blue Origin’s request to seal, the claim is about “NASA’s improper award of the [Human Landing System] Option A contract to SpaceX.”
Blue Origin’s lawsuit means NASA’s attempts to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 will remain tied up in litigation.
NASA had said it would like at least two finalists to build two unique landers for upcoming Artemis moon missions. But in April, the agency gave one contract for nearly $3 billion to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, blaming the single award on a lack of congressional funding.
“NASA officials are currently reviewing details of the case,” the agency said in an email reply to questions about the program and the lawsuit.
“NASA is committed to the Artemis program and the nation’s global leadership in space exploration. With our partners, we will go to the moon and stay to enable science investigations, develop new technology, and create high paying jobs for the greater good and in preparation to send astronauts to Mars.
“As soon as possible, the agency will provide an update on the way forward for returning to the moon as quickly and as safely as possible under Artemis.”
The space agency requested $3.4 billion this year for the lunar Human Landing System, but Congress appropriated just $850 million.
Blue Origin since has criticized in public statements NASA’s decision and SpaceX’s plan for a moon landing as “immensely complex and high risk.”
“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” the company said in a written statement.
“We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the moon for America,” according to the statement.
SpaceX would use a modified Starship rocket for the moon landing, which is being developed at that company’s private spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas. Blue Origin and group of legacy defense contractors would use a system that includes an ascent module — more similar to the Apollo-era lunar missions.
Blue Origin most likely will incur the wrath of many space fans and even some space professionals for causing a delay, Amy Foster, professor of space history at University of Central Florida, told UPI.
“Blue Origin is going to get some real pushback from this, but it’s not going to have the same kind of political impact it would have in the 1960s because the space race is not as urgent today as it was when the U.S. was trying to against the Soviet Union,” Foster said.
Contractors have had disputes with NASA during the Apollo and space shuttle programs, but they weren’t necessarily decided in the courts, she said.
That’s partly because NASA is purposely trying to encourage more competition in the private sector. SpaceX and Blue Origin both have leased launch pads and facilities at Kennedy Space Center, for example.
While NASA has always worked with contractors who may have disputes, the new emphasis on private-sector competition is “still an evolving relationship,” Foster said. The legal dispute between SpaceX and Blue Origin is a sign of that evolution, she said.
Jeff Bezos’ company already lost one bid to interfere with NASA’s plan when the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, denied on July 30 the company’s protest of the contract award.
Since April, several members of Congress have introduced a bill to boost NASA’s current funding by $10 billion to make another award under the program. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has said he supports that approach.
Blue Origin’s bid was evaluated by NASA to cost $5.99 billion, about twice that of the SpaceX proposal. But Bezos said in an open letter to NASA in July that the company would permanently waive $2 billion in payments and absorb the cost of a pathfinder mission to fly its lander in Earth orbit as a preliminary test.
The first Artemis mission, an uncrewed test flight of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, is scheduled for launch from Florida later this year.