Blue Origin loses lunar lander lawsuit; NASA says SpaceX work will resume ASAP

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Starship on the moon
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Starship rocket ship on the moon. (SpaceX Illustration)

A federal judge today rejected Blue Origin’s challenge to a $2.9 billion contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX for building the lunar lander destined to carry astronauts to the moon.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture had argued that NASA gave overly wide leeway to SpaceX in advance of the contract award in April — but Judge Richard Hertling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected Blue Origin’s arguments. His opinion was sealed, pending a Nov. 18 conference to discuss which details needed to be redacted for competitive reasons. (Update: The redacted opinion was released on Nov. 18. Check the update at the end of this report for details.)

In a statement, NASA said that it would resume work with SpaceX under the terms of the contract “as soon as possible.”

Bezos tweeted that today’s ruling was “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

In a separate statement, Blue Origin said its lawsuit raised “important safety issues with the Human Landing System procurement process that must still be addressed.” That appeared to be a reference to the company’s allegations that NASA waived some of SpaceX’s requirements for flight readiness reviews.

“Returning astronauts safely to the moon through NASA’s public-private partnership model requires an unprejudiced procurement process alongside sound policy that incorporates redundant systems and promotes competition,” Blue Origin said.

We’ve reached out to SpaceX as well, and wlll update this story with anything we hear back. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to news of the ruling on Twitter with a Judge Dredd meme reading “You have been judged!”

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The ruling means SpaceX can resume its work to adapt its massive Starship spacecraft for use as a landing system for sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2024 — although that date is almost certain to slip.

Throughout the legal challenge, SpaceX has been building Starship prototypes and testing the craft’s methane-fueled Raptor engines at its Boca Chica Starbase facility in South Texas. The company envisions using Starship not only for moon missions, but for trips to and from Earth orbit, and eventually Mars.

Today NASA noted that it will support multiple commercial efforts to develop lunar landing systems as a follow-up on Starship’s moon landing. Blue Origin and two of its industry partners — Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — are already in on those efforts.

“There will be forthcoming opportunities for companies to partner with NASA in establishing a long-term human presence at the moon under the agency’s Artemis program, including a call in 2022 to U.S. industry for recurring crewed lunar landing services,” NASA promised.

Blue Origin said it remained “deeply committed to the success of the Artemis program” and noted that it has a “broad base of activity on multiple contracts with NASA to achieve the United States’ goal to return to the moon to stay.”

“We are fully engaged with NASA to mature sustainable lander designs, conduct a wide variety of technology risk reductions, and provide Commercial Lunar Payload Services,” Blue Origin said. “We are also under contract with NASA to develop in-situ resource utilization technology, lunar space robotics, and lunar landing sensor collaboration including testing on New Shepard.”

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The company said it would “look forward to hearing from NASA on next steps” in the process to procure human landing systems.

Update for 11:30 a.m. PT Nov. 18: The redacted version of Judge Hertling’s opinion doesn’t contain any surprises. Hertling noted that the Blue Origin team’s bid was substantially higher than SpaceX’s (nearly $6 billion vs. $2.9 billion) and that the bid didn’t comply with NASA’s requirements.

Blue Origin claimed that it would have worked with NASA to submit an alternative proposal, “but the court finds its hypothetical proposal to be speculative and unsupported by the record,” Hertling wrote.

In any case, “Blue Origin has not shown that NASA’s evaluation or its conduct during the procurement was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise contrary to law,” the judge said. “NASA provided a thorough, reasoned evaluation of the proposals.”

Check out the 47-page opinion for the details:


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