Blue Origin and Dynetics continue to agitate over NASA's decision to only award one contract to SpaceX for the construction of a Human Landing System to support the Artemis program. Blue Origin and Dynetics protested the decision, but it was rejected. Now, the Government Accountability Offices arguments which Blue Origin openly questioned are available for everyone to see. These are some highlights of the point-by-point investigation into the complaints made by the losing companies.
NASA selected the three companies listed for funding early to develop and propose a lunar landing platform that could be operational by 2024. They suggested that the next step would be to select two proposals to proceed with. SpaceX was the only company to walk away with a contract when it came time for awards.
Blue Origin and Dynetics protested the decision in their own ways, but they had similar reasons. First, NASA should have given two companies as promised. Second, it is dangerous and anti-competition to not do so. It should have changed the terms of the award process after it realized it did not have enough budget. The third problem was that NASA did not evaluate the proposals fairly and showed bias against SpaceX and the other applicants in different ways.
All of these concerns are addressed by the GAO in their report. Blue Origins follow up complaint that the agency's limited jurisdiction meant it could not adequately address the protests is made look like a bunch of sour grapes.
The answer to the question of whether one company should be awarded a contract and not two is clear. Multiple times, the announcement stated that all of it was dependent on the availability of enough money. NASA might have hoped or expected to be able to award two contracts. However, it was clear that it would award at least one contract. What if one applicant met all requirements, and the other didn't? NASA would be required to pay money to an ineligible applicant. It is not true, and that's what was more or less what happened.
The following is taken from the report:
Even if a solicitation indicates an intention to award multiple contracts, we recognize that agencies are not required to do so if the proposal evaluation determines that one contract should be awarded. Regardless of the agency's intentions, an agency cannot exceed the available funds when it awards contracts.
According to the GAO, NASA's decision-making process weighed the technical approach as the most important, followed by price and management (i.e. organization, scheduling, etc.). Each proposal was evaluated separately on each of these attributes, and the final results were then compared. Here's a summary of the ratings given:
The report is again available:
The technical approach factor was to be greater than the total evaluated cost factor. In turn, the management approach factor was more important than the management factor. However, the non-price factors were significantly more important that price when taken together. Contrary to protesters' arguments, SpaceX's proposal was rated the highest under all three evaluation criteria.
The final budget for NASA left less money for HLS than was expected. This forced the agency to make difficult choices. They had a proposal that was both as good or better than others technically (the most important factor), and significantly better than others organizationally, and it came in at an affordable cost. It was clear that SpaceX was the right choice for a contract.
NASA discovered that the cupboard was empty after it had done so. Blue Origin maintained that they should be contacted to make it work. They suggested that if NASA had approached them to negotiate, they might have put together an offer that was even better than SpaceX's. (Jeff Bezos' brazen, after-the fact $2 billion offer suggests that they had some leeway.
NASA had however already determined otherwise, as the GAO confirms.
It was concluded that SpaceX could be negotiated with to transfer $[DELETED] in FY2021 milestone payments (or about [DELETED]% of the $2.941 trillion total proposed price) to other years in order to meet NASA's FY2021 funding restrictions. The SSA, however, concluded that it was impossible for Blue Origin ($5.995billion) and Dynetics ($9.082billion) to materially lower their substantially higher total prices without making any changes to their respective management and technical approaches.
It is not difficult to see the problem here, despite redactions. Although it was possible, and even reasonable, that SpaceX would shift some hundred million around in order to make the fiscal math work (which was already questionable at the 3 billion mark), it was impossible to imagine that Blue Origin or Dynetics could cut half or more of their costs to make these same fiscal milestones happen.
NASA's selection committee explained the following:
NASA cannot afford to pay Blue Origin a lower price for the scope work after accounting for a SpaceX contract award.
Blue Origin claimed that NASA should have advised them about the possibility of restrictions in the selection process. However, the GAO noted that the federal budget is not secret and that companies did not raise the issue until after the award was announced. It stated that such complaints must be made promptly to be considered serious and that there are no indications that anything would have been different if NASA had warned.
The protestors also raised the question of whether selecting one provider is unfairly competitive and too risky. Although the GAO acknowledges that these critical questions of policy might merit further public discussion, the complaint is moot as NASA didn't have enough money to do more than one. We, as voters and space advocates, may find it a pity that NASA did not have $6 billion to spare. However, that does not mean that the agency's decision to use the money for the best purposes possible was wrong.
No one can hear what you scream in space.
Blue Origin and Dynetics claimed that SpaceX was unfairly evaluated in the evaluation process. The GAO views these claims as nonsense.
Blue Origin claims that the announcement didn't require vehicles to be capable of landing in the dark. First of all, it does. Second, space is dark. You're going to have a hard time getting your design noticed.
Another example is that the communication systems Blue Origin and SpaceX proposed for use were flagged as not meeting certain requirements. Blue Origin received a significant flaw and SpaceX got a weak.
The GAO disagrees. Even a cursory look at the evaluation record shows that there are material differences between proposals that support NASAs various evaluation findings. In this instance, four of Blue Origins communication links didn't work as required and a fifth was considered a possibility. SpaceX had only two of its communications links fail to work correctly. This type of significant difference was evident in all of the objections made by the complainants.
The report actually states:
We are surprised that Blue Origin has not rebutted any analysis provided by the contracting officer in relation to Blue Origins and SpaceXs proposals. Blue Origin challenged the agency's evaluation of its proposal at first, but then retracted that protest after receiving the agency report.
Blue Origin was unhappy that SpaceX received extra points for designing a spacecraft that was safe, healthy, and comfortable, even though many of the design choices were not required. NASA considers these meritorious and the GAO states that NASA has the right to do so as an expert agency. They call it a good example of why discretion is appropriate in such cases.
The report states that even if several of the decisions were successfully challenged, it would not have affected the outcome.
SpaceX was awarded the following evaluations:
Technical: 3 strengths, 10 strengths, 6 weaknesses and 1 weakness
: 3 significant strengths, 10 strengths; 6 weakness; and 1 major weakness. Management: 2 significant strengths, 3 strengths; 2 weaknesses; and 2 strengths.
Blue Origin was awarded the following:
Technical: 13 strengths, 14 weaknesses, and 2 major weaknesses
13 strengths, 14 weaknesses, and 2 significant flaws Management: 1 significant strength, 2 strengths, and 6 weaknesses
It's not a good feeling to find yourself being beaten on almost every aspect of life. But that seems to be the case here. Dynetics and its complaint share the same fate but are given a little more harsh treatment.
Even though there is a possibility that protesters might prevail on a small portion of NASAs evaluation challenges, the record shows that NASAs evaluation was largely reasonable and that the relative competitiveness of the offerors in the non-price factor would not materially alter. The protests have been denied.
This is a brutal document of the failures of Blue Origin, Dynetics and Dynetics. It would not have been necessary if the companies had taken their lumps accepted by NASA that they arent out for them. They lost, and now they are just whiny and inept instead of ambitious could bes.