Was SpaceX's lunar lander win a fait accompli?

The Government Accountability Office's public version of its decision to deny the lunar lander protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics is now out. There is plenty to look through across 76 pages, although it seems that SpaceX's victory was inevitable.

Most bid protest decisions run in the range of between 15 and 20 pages. Any decision beyond 20 pages considered a long decision.

I’m not sure what to call the just-released 76-page decision to deny both protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics over the next-generation lunar lander award.

NASA picked Elon Musk's SpaceX in April to build the lander under a $2.9 billion contract. GAO released a statement of just the result when it made the decision on July 30. Now a public version of the decision is out and it goes into detail about the challenges Blue Origin and Dynetics raised in their protests.

The decision goes into the finer details about the procurement process that surrounded the contract. So if you want to geek out, this is the document to read.

But here are some highlights that jumped out at me.

SpaceX's bid was priced at $2.9 billion, compared to $6 billion from Blue Origin and $9 billion by Dynetics. Beyond those numbers,, there also was an issue of when and how much the companies wanted to be paid up front. The amount of milestone payments each company proposed are redacted, but they all exceeded what NASA could pay by $345 million.

The decision also reveals the technical and management scores each company received.

NASA rated both SpaceX and Blue Origin as "Acceptable" on the technical front, while Dynetics was rated "Marginal." The management tab shows SpaceX as rated "Outstanding," compared to "Very Good" for Blue Origin and Dynetics.

At that stage, the cost proposed by each company exceeded what NASA had in its budget. But the agency opened negotiations with SpaceX because it had the lowest cost and the higher scores.

During thoes negotiations, SpaceX adjusted its milestone payments to fit NASA's budget but left the proposed total price as is.

Price was an area that Blue Origin and Dynetics challenged, but GAO said NASA was within its rights to conduct those negotiations. Blue Origin and Dynetics also challenged the single-award nature versus having two awards.

There again: GAO said the solicitation left that option open, even though NASA was on record as saying it preferred to have two prime contractors.

GAO's decision also goes into areas of literal rocket science that I’m not going to pretend to understand. The values are redacted but there is a discussion of “mass allocations” and “mass growth allowance.” That came into play as Blue Origins and Dynetics challenged their technical scores. For Dynetics, there was an issue of not providing enough detail in proposal, which resulted in its lower technical score.

SpaceX also scored points with NASA because of some the extra health and safety features that company included in its proposal. Which helps explain how SpaceX got a higher technical and management score higher than the others.

“We find nothing unreasonable in NASA positively assessing SpaceX’s commitment to the health, safety, and comfort of the astronauts,” GAO wrote.

There is plenty more in the decision. For me, it seems SpaceX combined a strong technical approach with its low price. NASA really had little-to-no choice.

Blue Origin's price was $3 billion more than what SpaceX proposed and Dynetics' was higher by $6 billion. That’s a hard gap to overcome.

Though Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has offered to cover $2 billion in costs if NASA gives his company a contract. NASA has not publicly responded to his offer.

You could argue that NASA should have thrown all three out and had them all start over and revise their proposals. I'm not sure that would change the result.

As GAO says in the decision, NASA followed the parameters of the solicitation and documented its decision along the way.

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