Monday, May 3, 2021

NASA Sued Over Awarding Human Landing System Contract to SpaceX

Stop me if you've heard this kind of story about government contracts.  Last Monday, it was announced that Blue Origin was filing a suit against NASA for awarding the Human Landing System contract exclusively to SpaceX.  Seemingly within moments, the other competitor in the three-way decision, Dynetics also announced a lawsuit for not being chosen to develop the HLS. Elon Musk's response on Twitter was quintessentially Elon Musk. 

There are times I think some 13 year old boys are running the engineering at Tesla and SpaceX.  This fits that idea.  On the other hand, he's right.  Neither Blue Origin or Dynetics has launched anything to orbit.  Dynetics is relying totally on subcontractors; Blue Origin is supposedly doing it themselves, with the New Glenn, the only rocket currently able to compete with the Space Launch System for the coveted "Most Delayed" award.

In the world of big government contracts, such suits seem to have become the norm in the last 20 years; maybe farther back.  I've been in companies that get the contract and then have to holdup starting work until the legal actions are resolved. 
That means that NASA is now legally unable to use funds or resources related to its Human Lander System (HLS) program or the $2.9 billion contract it awarded SpaceX on April 16th to develop a variant of Starship to return humanity to the Moon. However, just like SpaceX has already spent a great deal of its own time and money on Starship development and – more recently – a rapid-fire series of launches, the company appears to have no intention of letting sore losers hamper its rocket factory or test campaign.
Don't get me wrong; it's good in principle for the competitors to be able to verify that the contract was awarded in keeping with the rules everyone was working to.  Further, I think the tendency for these contract awards to generate these protest lawsuits is a nature of the relentless push of companies to look good in this quarter's bottom line; after all, since we pay executives in stock options and other things to avoid the "millionaire's tax", it's only a natural (perhaps unintended) consequence that they would seek to optimize the stock options.  The government contracts are so big that they mean lots to the survival of all of the companies.  Eric Ralph at Teslarati notes:
The primary argument is generally shared by both protestors. In essence, Dynetics [p. 23; PDF] and Blue Origin [PDF] believe that it was unfair or improper for NASA to select just a single provider from the three companies or groups that competed. They argue that downselecting to one provider in lieu of budget shortfalls changed the procurement process and competition so much that NASA should have effectively called it quits and restarted the entire five-month process. Blue Origin and Dynetics also both imply that they were somehow blindsided by NASA’s concerns about a Congressional funding shortfall.
Blindsided?  They can't be stupid enough to not know that funding shortfalls are likely in a program that isn't climate change or New Green Deal-related.  At the time of the award, I recall posting that NASA said it needed $3.3 billion in funding for this fiscal year to meet the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Congress provided just $850 million, and as a result, NASA acknowledged that 2024 was no longer a realistic target.  They would have rather had more than one contractor but couldn't do it on just over 25% of what they needed. 

A commenter over on Teslarati's article posted this visual (actually three or four commenters did):

Left to right, SpaceX, Dynetics, Blue Origin.  The lander on the left was bid at $3 Billion less than the cheaper of the other two. 

Things that make you go, "hmmm."

It might be worth quoting Eric Berger (from Ars Technica) who tweeted, "I’ve been told that Jeff Bezos is livid about this, and views overturning the HLS award as a top priority for Blue Origin."  It kind of feeds the story being circulated that Jeff Bezos has a personal grudge against or rivalry going with Elon Musk. 


  1. I worked on a very badly needed simulator program, for something that was, until that program, basically 'learn on the job' and involved multi-million dollar aircraft feet apart at speed, and sometimes in hyperbolic curves...

    So after we did a technology demonstration system, with mostly COTS tech, and got the go ahead to do a very cheap implementation, someone else sued. We had to put the whole thing in mothballs for 2 years while they sorted the legal battle out, and then we proceeded, because we really were the only ones who could do it. Of course, tech doesn't age well in storage, so we were essentially starting over, but that was fine, because COTS...

    It's a good thing no one was killed and no aircraft lost during that time, because there wasn't a good training option available.

    Too often the piggies think it's about the trough, and forget that lives hang in the balance.


    (coincidentally, that was the project I learned a little nugget... when the hexapod looks like it's banging it's head, SOMEONE is having a very bad day in the seat.)

  2. To be fair, SpaceX has used Lawfare against the DOD to get past the total lock on launch services that ULA had.

    Of course, to be fair again, SpaceX actually had a functioning rocket that had achieved the goals the DOD wanted.

    Unlike this issue. Both competing companies have yet to get a piece of paper off the ground, while SpaceX is literally launching and not-quite-landing on a bi-weekly basis.

    And... SpaceX has room to grow, to modify, to do a whole lot of stuff with their Lunar landing system. While Dynetics and BO are both at the maximum ability with their systems, well, Dynetics is actually quite a bit overweight from what they said they were.

    Bezos must be peeved in having the DOD deselect them, and I am sure that ULA is threatening to yank the engine contract for their new rocket. And then this.

    What next? Virgin Aerospace sucking all the potential paying passengers off of the New Shepard rocket?

    Really, what has Blue Origins actually done? What have they launched? Where are the results?

    And Dynetics? Their design would have been cool in a post-Apollo, like 1970ish to 1980ish, environment. But now? Maybe the Chi-Coms with their limited lift, but from a US company?

    Seriously. I see SpaceX smashing this lawsuit pretty easily. And a lot of their Lunar Lander work is going to be based upon Starship, which they're still working on landing, so NASA monies aren't needed immediately.

    I guess it's all about who in the current NASA administration is being bought by Bezo's billions. And that includes that feckless idiot Bill Nelson.

    Will corruption and idiots win over the boys at SpaceX?


  3. SpaceX should criminally pursue the other two's executives and boards for fraud, because there's no reason to believe those companies could deliver what they promised.

  4. Then let Jeff pony up $4 billion.

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