NASA said it has ordered SpaceX to halt work on a contract it was recently awarded to develop a lunar spacecraft, pending the result of two challenges by rival bidders at the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The move means SpaceX must stop any work specifically related to the Human Landing System (HLS) lunar programme until the GAO delivers its decision, expected by 4 August.
The dispute delays SpaceX’s first payment of funds from the $2.9 billion (£2.1bn) contract as well as SpaceX’s first talks with NASA involving the plans.
Last month NASA awarded the contract to SpaceX, beating out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics.
Blue Origin and Dynetics had both proposed collaborating with multiple contractors on the high-profile programme, which is NASA’s first step toward the Moon since the Apollo mission of 1972.
Both companies appealed to the GAO, with Blue Origin alleging NASA gave SpaceX the opportunity to revise its bid but did not give such a chance to Blue Origin.
The company also said the choice of a single company could endanger NASA’s 2024 target date for completing the project, and extends SpaceX’s “monopolistic” control over space exploration.
“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” NASA said in a statement.
SpaceX’s Starship fully reusable rocket system won the NASA contract largely for its expansive cargo capacity and its $2.9bn price tag, far lower than the Blue Origin and Dynetics bids, according to a NASA source selection document.
Starship is already under development as a private-sector project to ferry humans to Mars, and SpaceX has launched several prototypes to a height of six miles, although to date all of the prototypes have exploded during descent or after landing.
The next Starship prototype, SN15, is set to launch within the next few days after gaining licence approval from the US’ Federal Aviation Administration last week.
The SpaceX contract award was a key “first step” in a broader programme to return humans to the Moon, NASA human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders said at the time of the award, adding that further contract opportunities would arrive in the near future.
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