US space agency NASA has ordered Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX to halt their work on developing a lunar spacecraft through a contract they won last month until a ruling is made by the Government Accountability Office. This project aims to put humans back on the moon as early as 2024, for the first time since 1972.
Amazon’s Blue Origin filed a 50 page protest with the GAO last week, stating that NASA gave SpaceX the chance to revise its bid but did not extend that same courtesy to them. They also accuse SpaceX of trying to create a monopoly, stating that this decision extends SpaceX's monopolistic control in the realm of space exploration.
According to The Verge, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was chosen by NASA on April 16th to build the agency’s first human lunar lander since the Apollo program, as the agency opted to rely on just one company for a high-profile contract that many in the space industry expected to go with two companies.
Starship, SpaceX’s fully reusable rocket system under development to eventually ferry humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars, won NASA’s award mainly for its massive cargo capability and its proposed bid of $2.9 billion — far cheaper than Blue Origin’s and Dynetics’, according to a NASA source selection document.
American InfoTech company Dynetics agreed with Blue Origin’s allegations, and made a statement on the case saying that “in awarding to SpaceX alone, NASA chose the most anti-competitive and high risk option available." Dynetics went ahead with an official complaint as well, which was later co-signed by Blue Origin, in which they said that NASA should have withdrawn its request for bids for the lunar project once it became clear it didn't have enough funding to proceed with two companies, as it had originally planned.
NASA’s initial response to the allegations was that budget concerns and lack of Congressional funding led to them having to go with a single competitor. The GAO’s ruling is expected to be heard by 4th August at the latest, and the Human Landing System (HLS) work will be put on hold until then.
According to Space Policy Online, SpaceX is already testing prototypes of its Starship system using its own funds. A number of tests have been conducted at its Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship is designed to be reusable so it not only launches, but lands. All four of the last four tests of its three-engine prototypes have launched and flown well, but the landings resulted in spectacular explosions.
Regardless of the current controversy, NASA’s awarding of the project to SpaceX is the first step in the creation of a broader program to secure transportation to the moon and the eventual development of technology that will further space exploration and travel in the coming decade. The 100 day deadline to the GAO until 4th August could be a delay in this progress, but the ruling could lead to SpaceX either continuing its work on the HLS alone or the two rival companies stepping up to work alongside it. Either outcome guarantees HLS development and takes humanity one step closer to paying another visit to the moon.