NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash due to protests

An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s spaceship rocket ship on the moon. (SpaceX illustration)

NASA says it will withhold its payments to SpaceX for the development of its Starship super rocket as a lunar lander, while the Government Accountability Office addresses the $ 2.9 billion contracting challenges of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as Alabama regulates -based dynamics.

Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin filed their protests with GAO this week, claiming the award was unfairly beneficial to SpaceX. The three teams worked for months on proposals in the hope of gaining support from NASA to develop a landing system that would bring astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2024.

GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints are legitimate and, if so, what to do about them. This 100-day clock expires on August 4th.

In the meantime, the space agency is stopping work on the contract for the Human Landing System.

“Due to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract would be suspended until GAO resolved any pending litigation related to this procurement,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt said in a statement via e- Mail to GeekWire. “NASA cannot comment on the pending litigation.”

It’s not clear how much the suspension of NASA funding will affect Starship’s development. Before the contract was awarded this month, SpaceX was running an extraordinarily rapid series of altitude tests on Starship prototypes. The next prototype, called the SN15, is scheduled to be launched from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas in the next few days.

Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the uses SpaceX is considering for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even larger Super Heavy Booster are also set to be used for point-to-point land travel, mass deployments of satellites in orbit, commercial trips around the moon, and Odyssey to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions in private investments for its rocket development efforts, and that funding should help SpaceX while GAO reviews NASA’s award.

NASA officials had hoped to select two teams to move on to the next phase of lunar lander development. However, since Congress only provided a quarter of the 3.3 billion US dollars that NASA was looking for for the project in the current fiscal year, the space agency made a decision with just one of the teams. SpaceX came with the lowest cost and highest rating.

Both Blue Origin and Dynetics said NASA did not properly evaluate their proposals for lunar landers and that officials changed the rules of the competition during the course. Dynetics said NASA should have revised or canceled its contracting plan once it determined there wasn’t enough money for two teams.

The teams also argued in their records that using a single source runs counter to NASA’s general trend of selecting multiple teams for key commercial space programs to encourage competition and provide redundancy should one of the teams stall. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Echoed this criticism last week during the confirmation hearing of the next NASA administrator, former Senator Bill Nelson.

“NASA has a long tradition of ensuring the resilience of commercial programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what is known as differential redundancy. I want to know, therefore, that you will commit to swiftly come to Congress with a plan to ensure this type of resilience to the Human Lander program, ”Cantwell told Nelson. In response, Nelson agreed that “competition is always good”.

On Thursday, NASA announced it would launch a new commercial lunar landing services procurement program for the crewed missions that will tie in with SpaceX’s first demonstration mission. Meanwhile, the Senate unanimously approved Nelson’s nomination.

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