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Government watchdog denies protests of SpaceX's lunar lander contract

An illustration depicts a SpaceX Starship rocket outfitted as a lunar lander on the moon. Photo courtesy of SpaceX
An illustration depicts a SpaceX Starship rocket outfitted as a lunar lander on the moon. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

ORLANDO, Fla., July 30 (UPI) -- A U.S. government watchdog denied protests Friday of NASA's nearly $3 billion contract award to Elon Musk's SpaceX to build a lunar lander for astronaut missions.

In denying the arguments made by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Alabama-based Dynetics, the Government Accountability Office noted that NASA's options for the contract were restricted by a lack of congressional funding.

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NASA's description of the contract competition had stated that the outcome would depend on that funding, Kenneth Patton, a GAO managing associate general counsel, said in a emailed statement.

"In addition, the announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all," Patton wrote. "The protesters could not establish any reasonable possibility of competitive prejudice."

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Blue Origin and Dynetics filed the protests in April when they were shut out of the three-way competition.

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NASA had said it would like at least two finalists to build two unique landers for upcoming Artemis moon missions. The agency requested $3.4 billion this year for the lunar Human Landing System program, but the Congress appropriated just $850 million.

Since April, several members of Congress have introduced a bill to boost NASA's current funding by $10 billion to make another award under the program. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a June congressional hearing that the agency was prepared to move quickly once the GAO made its decision.

Blue Origin will continue to press for a contract despite the GAO ruling, according to an emailed statement.

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"We've been encouraged by actions in Congress to add a second provider and appropriate additional resources to NASA's pursuit to return Americans to the moon," the company wrote.

Blue Origin's bid was evaluated by NASA to cost of $5.99 billion, about twice that of the SpaceX proposal. But Bezos said in an open letter to NASA on Monday that the company would permanently waive $2 billion in payments and absorb the cost of a pathfinder mission to fly its lander in Earth orbit as a preliminary test.

The first Artemis mission, an uncrewed test flight of the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, is scheduled for launch from Florida later this year.

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Moghbeli poses for a portrait in the Systems Engineering Simulator for the International Space Station and advanced spaceflight programs at the Johnson Space Center on July 9, 2019. She will train for the moon mission. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA

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