SpaceX is going to the moon, and its competitors are complaining. On 16 April, NASA announced that it had selected Elon Musk’s space-flight company to build the lunar lander that will take humans to the moon’s surface as part of its Artemis programme. SpaceX beat out two rivals that hoped to secure the $2.9 billion contract – defence firm Dynetics and private space-flight company Blue Origin – both of which have now filed complaints with the US government alleging that the selection process was unfair.
Experts in the space community had expected NASA to select two of the three finalists vying for the contract to continue working on their landers, as it did with the capsules that were developed to shuttle astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. The reasoning behind this is twofold: it encourages competition in the space industry and it gives NASA a backup plan in case one of the projects doesn’t work.
But NASA barely had enough money to hire one firm to build a moon lander, let alone two. It only managed to do so by renegotiating its payment schedule with SpaceX, which submitted a plan that was less than half as expensive as those of the other two firms. In NASA’s assessments of each company’s management and the technical plans in each proposal, SpaceX rated higher overall than its competitors.
But Blue Origin, led by Jeff Bezos, took issue with the decision. A statement from the company said: “NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute. In NASA’s own words, it has made a ‘high risk’ selection. Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the Moon.”
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Dynetics also released a statement saying it “has issues and concerns with several aspects of the acquisition process as well as elements of NASA’s technical evaluation”, and it has filed a protest with the US Government Accountability Office to address them.
After the protests were filed, Musk tweeted poking fun at the fact that Blue Origin hasn’t sent a rocket into orbit yet – all of the company’s flights have been suborbital so far. In contrast, SpaceX has already sent its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets into orbit 117 times. It has flown humans to the International Space Station three times, while the other firm selected for that programme, Boeing, has yet to send even a test capsule without a crew to the station successfully.
The craft that SpaceX is developing for NASA’s lunar landings is a modified version of its Starship rocket, prototypes of which are being tested in Florida regularly.
All of this is to say that without the budget to select two lunar landers, SpaceX seems to be the obvious choice. While it may not have the historical space-flight expertise of the team of major space-flight companies that Blue Origin has assembled, its more recent accomplishments demonstrate that the firm is doing just fine without recruiting others to come in and help.
Regardless of scuffles between two billionaires, someone will have to land humans on the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972, and it is pretty clear that Musk is determined to win out.