Blue Origin Loses NASA Lawsuit After Judge’s Ruling

The bad blood between two of the world’s richest men will not have been eased after a federal judge handed a significant legal setback to Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

Judge Richard Hertling of the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington on Thursday rejected a lawsuit by Blue Origin against the US government.

The issue began back in April this year, when NASA awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build the Artemis lunar lander to carry humans to the moon, as early as 2024.

From left: Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Image credit: SpaceX

Lunar contract

The American space agency had intended to have at least two private-sector companies compete to build the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts and equipment to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis moon landing missions – the first time humans will be back on the moon since 1972.

NASA’s announcement in early April that it would move forward with SpaceX as the sole contractor for the project surprised some, but the space agency cited costs as a primary reason for the decision, namely its own funding shortfalls, and SpaceX’s proven record of orbital missions.

But NASA’s decision to award the contract to SpaceX triggered a formal protest from Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

And in a sign of how bad a set back NASA’s decision actually was, Jeff Bezos in July even offered to personally cover up to $2bn in NASA costs if the space agency also offered his venture a lunar lander contract.

Blue Origin essentially offered to waive payments of up to $2bn and pay for an orbital mission to test its technology, as well as covering any system development cost overruns.

But on 2 August 2020, the GAO rejected Blue Origin’s challenge of NASA’s $2.9 billion (£2bn) lunar lander contract deal with Space X.

The GAO also rejected a similar protest from military contractor Dynetics.

Having exhausted the usual protest procedure, it left Blue Origin with little choice but to opt for a legal challenge against the US government, and in mid August Blue Origin filed a lawsuit in federal court against it over NASA’s SpaceX decision.

Blue Origin meanwhile also had to contend with the departure of more than a dozen key leaders and top engineers, some of whom joined SpaceX.

Judge’s ruling

Now three months later, Judge Hertling granted the US government’s motion to dismiss the suit filed on 16 August.

Reuters reported that the judge’s opinion explaining his reasoning has been sealed, as were many other documents in the case, pending a meeting this month on proposed redactions.

Jeff Bezos took to Twitter to express his disappointment, and wish NASA and SpaceX well (through gritted teeth no doubt).

“Not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgement, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract,” Bezos tweeted.

NASA said on Thursday “it will resume work with SpaceX” on the lunar lander contract “as soon as possible.”

The space agency added it “continues working with multiple American companies to bolster competition and commercial readiness for crewed transportation to the lunar surface.”

“There will be forthcoming opportunities for companies to partner with NASA in establishing a long-term human presence at the Moon under the agency’s Artemis program, including a call in 2022 to US industry for recurring crewed lunar landing services,” NASA was quoted by Reuters as saying on Thursday.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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