Blue Origin Wins Concessions in Military Space Launch Contract

The Government Accountability Office is upholding one of the objections spaceflight company Blue Origin made in their protest over the bidding process for an Air Force contract for military space launches. The contract will be awarded to two companies whose plans will be combined and will involve launching national security satellites.

The contract will cover the next five years of military space launches and is Phase 2 of the Air Force’s Launch Service Procurement. The companies currently bidding for the project are SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Northrop, and Blue Origin. Blue Origin is a private space company founded by Jeff Bezos. (Amazon, another company founded by Bezos, filed a similar protest to a cybersecurity contract for the Pentagon last week.)

SpaceX and United Launch Alliance may have an advantage in the way of experience. Blue Origin currently has another government contract to build a rocket and has managed to launch rockets and return them to Earth, but they have never put a rocket into orbit before, making them the least experienced of the companies bidding for the project.

Blue Origin brought their protest to the GAO in August on the day the proposals were due. Their numerous concerns include the fact that companies may be allowed to present a back-up plan, some ambiguity in the wording for the process, and that picking just two companies for the contract would create a duopoly in the industry. Of all the objections made, the GAO only ruled in favor of Blue Origin on the point that picking two plans based on how they complement each other is unreasonable, since the companies have no knowledge of each other’s bids. The GAO made a statement that “[t]his methodology, as described by the agency, however, does not provide a reasonable, common basis on which offerors will be expected to compete and have their proposals evaluated,” in reference to this objection.

This ruling is not expected to give Blue Origin any advantage in the bidding going forward. Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisitions, technology, and logistics, announced that the Air Force plans to follow the GAO’s ruling and change the selection process to evaluate each plan on its own merits. Both the Air Force and Blue Origin have expressed positive views on the outcome of the protest. While Blue Origin has expressed that the awarding of the contract should be delayed in order to give the companies more time to work on their plans, the Air Force does not foresee this ruling significantly delaying the bidding process and still plans to announce the winners in mid-2020.