Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is protesting the rules of the game for awarding future national security launch contracts, while continuing to play against SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman.
All four companies have submitted bids in the second phase of an Air Force competition aimed at selecting vendors for launches in the 2022-2026 time frame.
In the first phase of the competition, the Air Force said it would set aside as much as $2.3 billion to support the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket. All those rockets are scheduled to enter service in the 2021 time frame.
However, the Air Force said it would reduce the field to two companies next year. Moreover, SpaceX – which didn’t qualify for development funds in Phase 1 – is joining the field for Phase 2 with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, both of which are already flying.
In May, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the federal government, complaining that it was unfairly left out of the Phase 1 awards and left at a disadvantage for Phase 2. Back then, the other three companies disputed SpaceX’s claims and supported the Air Force’s Phase 1 arrangement.
Today, it was Blue Origin’s turn to protest: The company said it filed a pre-award bid protest with the Government Accountability Office, claiming that it would be unfair for the Air Force to reduce the field to just two companies.
“The Air Force is pursuing a flawed acquisition strategy for the National Security Space Launch program,” Blue Origin said in a fact sheet distributed to media outlets. “Unless the Air Force changes its approach, this procurement will perpetuate a market duopoly in national security space launch well into the next decade, causing higher launch prices, less assured access to space, and a missed opportunity to expand our national security interests and bolster U.S. leadership in space.”
Florida Today quoted Blue Origin as saying in its protest that the total demand for U.S.-based rocket launches, including national security launches, should be able to support three or four companies.
Blue Origin voiced concern over potential vagueness in the criteria used for evaluating launch providers. And it was particularly concerned about a provision suggesting that launch bidders could turn to a backup option if necessary.
That provision could give an advantage to ULA, which already is flying Atlas 5 rockets for national security missions. There’s a bit of irony in that, considering that the current competition was organized to provide alternatives to the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines used on the Atlas 5.
The bottom line, from Blue Origin’s perspective, is that the rules of the game seem to favor SpaceX and ULA, the two current providers for national security launches.
The GAO typically has 100 days to render a decision on a bid protest. That’s the way the timeline played out in 2013 when Blue Origin battled against SpaceX to lease Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – a battle that SpaceX ultimately won.
Today both SpaceX and ULA issued statements saying they intend to win the current battle. Here’s what SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell had to say:
“SpaceX means to serve as the Air Force’s long-term provider for space launch, offering existing, certified and proven launch systems capable of carrying out the full spectrum of national security space launch missions and requirements.”
And here’s a quote from United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno, included in ULA’s news release:
“Atlas and Delta rockets have been the backbone of national security space launch for decades, building on a progressive history of technology development and advancement – Vulcan Centaur will advance this rich heritage.”
Jeff Bezos has said that he spends a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with the bulk of that money going toward development of the New Glenn rocket. The company, which is based south of Seattle in Kent, Wash., is building a factory in Alabama to produce the BE-4 rocket engines for New Glenn, and is gearing up for rocket assembly at another multimillion-dollar factory in Florida.
Whoever wins out in the competition for national security launches is sure to reap billions of dollars in contracts. The current plan calls for splitting the contracts 60-40 between the top-rated company and the runner-up.