U.S. watchdog rejects Blue Origin protest over NASA lunar contract


FILE PHOTO: The NASA logo is seen at Kennedy Space Center ahead of the NASA/SpaceX launch of a commercial crew mission to the International Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. government watchdog on Friday sided with NASA over its decision to pick a single lunar lander provider, rejecting a protest filed by Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc.

The companies had challenged the $2.9 billion award to Elon Musk's SpaceX for the lander, arguing NASA was required to make multiple awards. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said it "denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX."

Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, said on Friday it remained convinced that there were "fundamental issues" with NASA's decision, and that GAO was not able to address them "due to their limited jurisdiction."

Blue Origin said it will continue to advocate for two immediate providers as it believes that to be the right solution.

"GAO's decision will allow NASA and SpaceX to establish a timeline for the first crewed landing on the Moon in more than 50 years," NASA said in a statement on Friday, adding that sending American astronauts to the moon is a priority for the Biden Administration.

Dynetics, a unit of Leidos Holdings, said it was disappointed with the decision, but plans to compete for other opportunities announced by NASA in the future.

SpaceX did not comment, but Musk sent a tweet saying just "GAO" with a flexed muscle emoji.

NASA had sought proposals for a spacecraft that would carry astronauts to the lunar surface under its Artemis program to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.

In April, NASA awarded https://www.reuters.com/technology/spacex-wins-us-contract-spacecraft-send-astronauts-moon-washington-post-2021-04-16 SpaceX a contract to build such a spacecraft as early as 2024.

Blue Origin had contended NASA gave SpaceX an unfair advantage by letting it revise its pricing.

On Monday, Bezos offered to cover up to $2 billion in NASA costs if the U.S. space agency awarded Blue Origin a lunar landing contract.

In a letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos said Blue Origin would waive payments up to $2 billion, and pay for an orbital mission to vet its technology. In exchange, Blue Origin would accept a firm, fixed-priced contract, and cover any system development cost overruns.

"Without competition, NASA's short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won't serve the national interest," Bezos said.

Bezos' offer came six days after he flew alongside three crewmates to the edge of space aboard Blue Origin's rocket-and-capsule New Shepard.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Nivedita Balu; Editing by David Gregorio, Rosalba O'Brien and Shinjini Ganguli)

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