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Kent, Washington-based aerospace launch services provider Blue Origin has targeted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) decision to award Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) a $2.9 billion contract for landing humans on the lunar surface. NASA chose SpaceX as the sole provider for the agency's Human Landing System (HLS) in April, after which Blue ORigin and Dynetics, who had also bid for the HLS contract, protested before the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), arguing that the award process had violated NASA's own guidelines. In a ruling last week, the GAO dismissed the complaint, and Blue's latest criticism follows the decision, requesting Congress to ensure that an additional provider is included in the HLS program.
Boeing's "Vehicle Anomalies" Ample Evidence For Needing Two Lunar Landers Argues Blue Origin
Before NASA awarded SpaceX with the HLS contract, the agency had planned to choose two providers to ensure that the U.S. does not lose access to the lunar surface due to problems with one provider once the Artemis program takes to the skies with The Boeing Company's Space Launch System rockets.
However, as part of its rationale for choosing SpaceX as the only awardee, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration operations and missions directorate, Ms. Kathy Leuders, outlined that budgetary constraints had forced her agency to only pick SpaceX. As part of the decision, NASA also held revised negotiations with SpaceX, allowing the company to tailor its pricing to cater to the limited funds.
Blue Origin had protested the decision on both these counts with the GAO. In its ruling, the oversight body determined that while NASA was within its rights to pick a single provider, the decision to allow SpaceX to revise its price was out of the ordinary. However, in the GAO's opinion, this did not prejudice the award process, which the agency determined to be competitive and fair.
A graphic posted on Blue Origin's website (shown above) outlines that SpaceX's Starship is far riskier for astronauts when compared to its Integrated Landing Vehicle (ILV). This is because Starship is nearly four times as tall as the ILV, which increases the risks to the astronauts during vehicle egress (exit). Blue also states that since more than ten Earth launches are required for sending Starship to the Moon due to refueling operations in Earth orbit, SpaceX's vehicle has a complicated mission profile compared to the ILV's, which requires only three launches - one of each of its segments.
In its source selection statement, NASA had admitted that the large size of SpaceX's lander presented complications for extravehicular vehicle design. However, at the same, Ms. Leuders had commented that:
And, while I agree with the SEP that the scale of SpaceX’s lander also presents challenges, such as risks associated with an EVA hatch and windows located greater than 30 meters above the lunar surface, I find the positive attributes created by this aspect of SpaceX’s lander design to outweigh these and other shortcomings as identified by the SEP.
These positive attributes had been highlighted above, as the NASA official had outlined that:
First, I find SpaceX’s capability to deliver and return a significant amount of downmass/upmass cargo noteworthy, as well as its related capability regarding its mass and volumetric allocations for scientific payloads, both of which far exceed NASA’s initial requirements. I also note SpaceX’s ability to even further augment these capabilities with its mass margin flexibility.
. . .SpaceX’s ability to deliver a host of substantial scientific and exploration-related assets to the lunar surface along with the crew is immensely valuable to NASA in the form of enhanced operational flexibility and mission performance. For example, SpaceX’s capability will support the delivery of a significant amount of additional hardware, including bulky and awkwardly- shaped equipment, for emplacement on the lunar surface. This has the potential to greatly improve scientific operations and EVA capabilities. The value of this capability is even more apparent when considered with SpaceX’s ability to support a number of EVAs per mission that surpasses NASA’s goal value and EVA excursion durations that surpass NASA’s thresholds. Together, this combination of capabilities dramatically increases the return on investment in terms of the science and exploration activities enabled.
As part of its criticism, Blue Origin also shared two whitepapers outlining how choosing one lander is not only against American supremacy in space but that it hurts local supply chains and stops NASA from effectively establishing a lunar presence.
In one whitepaper, the company cited Boeing's setbacks with its Starliner spacecraft as evidence of the necessity to pick two vehicles for the HLS program.
According to Blue Origin:
NASA’s multiple provider approach for Commercial Cargo and Crew insulated both programs from financing and budgetary challenges, and delays in system development – including significant vehicle anomalies with different providers. In spite of this, NASA disregarded the proven benefits of redundant, diverse capabilities and instead selected one company to provide the launch vehicle, crew systems, transfer, and surface access for its flagship exploration program.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program has tasked only two vehicles for astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX's Crew Dragon is the only one having ferried crew as Boeing's Starliner waits to complete flight tests.
In another whitepaper, Blue reiterated that Starship refueling is a complex process that is unsuitable for NASA's lunar missions.
NASA's Leuders had expressed concern at SpaceX's "complicated concept of operations," receiving a highly unfavorable rating by NASA's evaluation panel. However, she had also noted that since they "entail[ed] operational risks in Earth orbit that can be overcome more easily than in lunar orbit," their effect was tempered.