In the last week, as SpaceX worked hard to prepare an improved prototype of Starship for its first launch, former rivals Blue Origin and Dynetics – both recently lost SpaceX’s historic Moon Moon landing contract – filed “protests” and forced the space agency. to freeze work (and funds).
This means that NASA is currently unable to use funds or resources related to its human landing program (HLS) or the $ 2.9 billion contract it commissioned SpaceX on April 16 to develop a version of Starship. to return humanity to the moon However, just as SpaceX has already spent a lot of its own time and money developing Starship and ̵
Instead, in the same two days, Blue Origin and Dynetics loudly filed official protests with the U.S. Government’s Accountability Office (GAO), and SpaceX conducted two static fire tests with a prototype of Starship and Raptor engines equipped with “hundreds of improvements.” “Technical challenges and adverse weather conditions have forced SpaceX to suspend a launch planned last week, but now the company appears set to release a prototype of the Starship SN15 as early as Tuesday, May 4th.
In general, the ability of companies to protest contract decisions with the US government is a necessity and (nominally) a net benefit, but it can easily be abused – and often in harmful ways. In the case of Blue Origin and Dynetics, it is difficult not to take both protests as examples of the latter.
Blue Origin disagrees with virtually every one of the highlights and conclusions drawn by NASA’s Kathy Lueders and a separate expert group – often to the point that the company clearly implies that it understands the process. negotiating NASA better than the space agency itself. Blue Origin partners Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are partly or wholly responsible for several of their own catastrophic acquisition bundles (F-35, Orion, SLS, James Webb Space Telescope) and are part of the military-industrial complex responsible primarily for the transformation of the United States. military and aerospace procurement in the quagmire of political interests, quasi-monopolies and loopholes as they are today.
The main argument is usually shared by both protesters. Essentially, Dynetics [p. 23; PDF] and Blue Origin [PDF] we believe it was unfair or incorrect for NASA to select only one supplier from the three competing companies or groups. They argue that shifting choice to a single provider instead of budget deficits changed the procurement process and competition to such an extent that NASA had to effectively abandon it and restart the entire five-month process. Blue Origin and Dynetics also suggest that they are somehow blinded by NASA’s concerns about a lack of funding from Congress.
In fact, it could hardly be clearer that NASA was extremely sensitive about HLS funding and highly motivated to try to bring people back to the moon by 2024, with or without the full support of Congress – albeit with more few words. As Lueders herself noted in the HLS Option A award statement, the Blue, Dynetics and SpaceX application responded word for word that “the total number of awards will depend on the availability of funding and the results of the evaluation.”
Furthermore, the consequences of NASA somehow blinding bidders with a lack of funding are terribly ignorant at best and deliberately dishonest at worst. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of NASA’s large-scale programs would know that the space agency’s budget is determined entirely by Congress each year and can change just as often if political winds change. In addition to blackmailing members of Congress or hoping that other avenues of legal political influence and partnership actually lead to the desired funding and priorities that emerge in appropriation legislation, NASA knows the future of its budget like anyone else, who has access to the Internet and a basic awareness of history and current events.
It has become clear that Congress is likely to drastically fund funding for NASA’s HLS program as early as November 2020, weeks before HLS’s Option A proposals. The last budget bill was passed on January 3, 2021, providing NASA with $ 850 million of the ~ $ 3.4 billion it requested for the HLS. Historically, NASA’s experience with the Merchant Crew Program – a public domain accessible to everyone – has probably made it clear to the agency that it can’t trust Congress to fund its priorities in good faith when half a decade of drastic underfunding eventually slows the critical program. by several years. This damage is simply caused half Request the budget of NASA’s commercial crew from 2010 to 2013, while Congress has already taken the road to provide barely quarter from the HLS funds requested by NASA in the weeks before the moon landing proposals expired.
In the end, the protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics were packed to the brim with a fine grinding of an ax, attempts to paint SpaceX in a negative light, and a general lack of indication that any of the companies were working in good faith. Instead, their protests seem almost failed, while forcing NASA to freeze HLS and delay related payments for up to 100 days. Given that SpaceX is now technically working to design, build, qualify and operate an open prototype lunar spacecraft by 2023 and a demonstration landing with a crew by 2024, 100 days represents a full 7-10% of the time, which is available to perform this exceptional task.
Ironically, the protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics have already helped demonstrate why NASA’s decision – especially in light of the unequivocal budget constraints – to secure its only contract to land the HLS Moon on SpaceX was insightful. If the winner of Blue Origin or Dynetics was in a similar position to SpaceX, it is almost impossible to imagine that any of the teams continue to work significantly instead of funding or guidance from NASA. SpaceX, on the other hand, has not missed a beat and looks set to continue to develop, produce and test Starship around the clock, despite NASA’s ability to help.
In other words, with a little luck, the actual impact of the 100-day freeze and funding schedule would be a small part of what it could have been if NASA had chosen a HLS provider more interested in HLS margins. profit and redemption of shares, rather than creating a sustainable way to expand humanity beyond the Earth.