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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

The questions raised by protests against SpaceX's lunar lander win

No surprise here: Dynetics and Blue Origin have filed protests against NASA's award of the lunar lander contract to SpaceX.

In their protests at the Government Accountability Office, Dynetics (a subsidiary of Leidos) and Blue Origin argue NASA didn’t conduct a proper evaluation. If it had, one of their proposals would have been selected.

The contract that went to SpaceX is worth $2.89 billion, but the bid by Blue Origin came in at $6 billion, according to the first report by the New York Times. Blue Origin claims NASA went back to negotiate with SpaceX over the pricing but didn’t give them the same opportunity.

Blue Origin also argues NASA misjudged the advantages of its proposal and downplayed the technical challenges SpaceX faces, the company told the NY Times.

In a statement, Dynetics said it has issues with several aspects of the acquisition process and technical evaluation that GAO should address. Dynetics also emphasized the need for continuing competition to ensure the success of the program.

Until it made a single award to SpaceX, NASA had given strong indicators it would make two awards to keep that element of competition -- to drive innovation and lower costs -- as part of the program.

But all prices including SpaceX's were higher than NASA anticipated and the agency said at the time of award that it couldn’t afford to make two awards.

The interplay of the technical solution, competition and price is what I find interesting here. I hope we learn more about all of those when GAO issues a decision in 100 days. Unless of course there is a corrective action ahead of that. Either way, I think we’ll learn something significant.

I think about the arguments that floated around the JEDI cloud infrastructure contract -- one provider versus multiple providers. The Defense Department has argued there will be plenty of competition and that it believes that there will always be multiple cloud providers. But why pick just one?

JEDI of course remains mired in a lawsuit filed by Amazon Web Services. (By coincidence, Blue Origin is led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.)

In its solicitation, NASA said it valued competition and wanted to pick two prime contractors. By picking just SpaceX, NASA didn’t go against the letter of its solicitation. It never promised two winners, just that it would pick up to two. Now that NASA has picked one, it says there will be future competition that others can bid on.

NASA is trying to send the message that no one is locked out. But just think of the first mover advantage that SpaceX now has if the single award holds. That will be hard for anyone to overcome.

Some of the challenges to SpaceX’s technical solution also will be interesting because a moonshot is a heavier lift (pun intended) then delivering astronauts to the International Space Station. I can’t judge the technical solutions, but the reasoning over the pick will be informative.

Then there is price. It goes right back to the story of the first astronauts getting ready for lift-off and they joke they are in a rocket built by the lowest bidder. We need to see more on how NASA weighed price into the decision.

It’ll be interesting to about NASA’s reasoning when GAO comes out with its decision. I don’t have an exact date, but 100 days puts the date in early August. It’ll be here before we know it.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Apr 27, 2021 at 1:53 PM

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