NASA picks SpaceX on the Moon to land Next Americans.

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Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first
 NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program.
Credits: SpaceX

Despite continuing objections from Blue Origin and Dynetics, SpaceX remains the only winner of the NASA Human Landing System (HLS) contract.

Tuesday (August 10), the GAO published more details on NASA’s choice to remain with SpaceX as the only beneficiary of the HLS contract. The winner develops and builds the lunar lander that NASA will utilize in the Artemis program for humans on the moon.

In April, both Blue Origin and Dynetics filed objections against the award of the Contract, claiming ‘faulty acquisition’ and ‘questions and concerns about the award. The GAO rejected the complaints on July 30 and on Tuesday published the entire justification for its decision.

One of the main issues of the businesses expressed was NASA’s unexpected decision not to pursue an expected strategy to select two of the three companies to sole-source the HLS contract (both to continue the competition and to have a backup lander available.) They also criticized NASA’s choice to contact SpaceX to change their plan rather than Blue Origin or Dynetics. While the GAO stated that NASA agreed to conclude a single source human landing system (HLS) contract renouncing its prior intention, it added that it “nevertheless found no basis to support the complaints as the protestors failed to demonstrate any realistic potential for competitive disadvantage” (August 10).

The GAO also stated that NASA was permitted to contact a firm it had provisionally chosen to alter the proposal under the procurement rules. The team headed by NASA’s Human Spaceflight Manager Kathryn Lueders, NASA Source Selection Authority (SSA), evaluated the three bids on April 2 and made a conditional selection on SpaceX’s proposal, stated the GAO.

The GAO said that the procurement procedure, after the provisional selection of SpaceX, permitted NASA to ‘negotiate any element of the milestone payment amount, timeline and/or acceptance criteria of the offeror.’ NASA thus requested that the firm alter its price and include extra flight readiness evaluations (FRRs) for their spacecraft, both permitted under the procurement process, stated the GAO.

The selection of the single supplier was not NASA’s choice, the GAO observed. SSA had intended to “preserve a competitive environment at this time of HLS,” as indicated by its decision on the NASA’s website and GAO documents, but claimed that NASA’s financial position was not in line with this choice.

By 2021, the agency got just $850 million for HLS, about one-quarter of NASA’s $3.3 billion need. “A single Option A grant was not supported by the current fiscal year budget of the NASA,” stated the SSA, referring to the HLS contract.

Regarding competitive harm, GAO stated that competitive harm may be shown only if the protesters are not excused by a condition, which in this instance did not occur.

“The relevant issue is whether the protester would have filed another offer which would have been reasonably chosen to receive an award if the requirement were to be waived,” the GAO said. The GAO noted that the SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics bids differed sufficiently to bias the evaluation towards the SpaceX award.

Blue Origin and SpaceX had “materially different” operational ideas for putting human beings on the moon, which prevented SpaceX from gaining an advantage because of the FRR amendments, the GAO concluded. Blue Origin intended to fulfill HLS landing criteria with one launch, while SpaceX planned many Starship flights to support a landing, the GAO said.

As for Dynetics, its main worry was to allegedly treat SpaceX for the FRR requirement (which was also allegedly of Blue Origin), but GAO stated that “it did not find that the protestors’ claims here provide a substantial chance of competitive disadvantage.”

In a footnote, the office noted that it took additional Dynetics and Blue Origin complaints into consideration, not all of them included in the paper. One of the main issues at the time, however, was NASA’s financing of HLS; for example, Blue Origin creator Jeff Bezos openly claimed that only SpaceX was asked to submit a revised budget reflecting the amount of HLS money NASA received by Congress. (Bezos, a billionaire, also offered for the Congressional deficit.)

According to the GAO, the objections “for several reasons” failed, primarily under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which allowed the agency to assess “financial availability.”

“All the claims of demonstrators do not have any basis for reality,” said the GAO, adding that SpaceX beat the competition in the three main HLS metrics: technical, price, and managerial approach. “Although a comparison study was needed, the SpaceX proposal seemed to be the top-ranking according to each of the three assessment criteria listed,” said GAO.

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