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Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) chief executive officer Mr. Elon Musk has questioned Kent, Washington-based aerospace equipment and services provider Blue Origin's defense of its lunar lander for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Artemis program. Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics submitted proposals to NASA under the agency's NEXT Space Technologies for Exploration (NEXT-STEP) program last year, and the agency awarded SpaceX with a $3 billion award last month.
Blue Origin Defends Decision To Protest NASA's SpaceX Award – Elon Musk Questions Company's High Price Tag
The lunar lander proposed by SpaceX had the lowest price of the three options available to NASA, and owing to budget constraints, the agency re-negotiated milestone payments with the company before making the award last month. However, soon after the announcement, Blue Origin submitted a protest with the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) contesting the award.
Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the United States Congress was considering providing NASA an additional $10 billion that would enable the agency to choose two companies for its lunar lander program - as NASA had initially envisioned. These led to speculation that the funds would be solely intended to fund Blue Origin's lunar lander as they would provide NASA with the budgetary space to choose the two companies.
In its source selection statement, which is a public document highlighting NASA's rationale for making the award, it had compared the three offerors' pricing by stating that:
SpaceX’s Total Evaluated Price of $2,941,394,557 was the lowest among the offerors by a wide margin. Blue Origin’s Total Evaluated Price was significantly higher than this, followed by Dynetics’ Total Evaluated Price, which was significantly higher than Blue Origin’s.
Blue Origin shared its take on the entire affair by posing two tweets yesterday. The first of these stressed the importance of having multiple lunar landers and outlined that:
The Human Landing System program needs competition, not the delay of starting over. The National Team has an open architecture, deep experience, massive self-funded investments and a safe, low-risk design to return to the Moon. Let’s go. #Artemis
It then shared a link highlighting its progress with the lunar lander made as of the end of last year. Blue's lunar lander (the Integrated Landing Vehicle or ILV) consists of three parts, designed by itself, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, and the trio had submitted its complete proposal to NASA in December, around the same time as SpaceX.
In response to these tweets, Musk sarcastically questioned Blue Origin about the price of its landing system. As opposed to the ILV, SpaceX will use a customized variant of the upper stage of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle system for the NASA proposal. Since Starship will also replace SpaceX's currently operational Falcon 9 rocket lineup, the development costs for its NASA proposal are lesser than what a standalone proposal would have entailed.
Musk's sarcastic response to Blue Origin was simple, as he asked about the price of the benefits of the company's lunar lander.
The sarcasm-filled reply was:
For the low, low price of … ?
Should the GAO rule in Blue Origin's favor, then the entire process of awarding contracts for the lunar lander will have to restart. This will inevitably cause delays, and it might provide Blue Origin time to rectify some of the faults with its proposal, which would have prevented NASA from re-negotiating with the company even if the agency had an adequate budget.
NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations missions directorate (HEOMD), Ms. Kathryn Leuders, highlighted in the source selection statement that Blue's proposal fell short in several areas. These areas included a procurement process with long lead times, a lack of component certifications, a testing plan scheduled for 2024 when the first lunar lander demonstration mission is set, and communication link errors.
However, most importantly, the biggest weakness of Blue's proposal was its decision to request advanced milestone payments from NASA. This went against the bidding rules, but Ms. Leuders stressed that she would have re-negotiated this with the company had its proposal presented "a good value to the Government."