NASA has demanded that SpaceX temporarily suspend work on the creation of a lunar version of the Starship spacecraft designed to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface. It comes just days after Blue Origin and Dynetics, which also claimed a contract to build a lunar lander but lost the competition, challenged SpaceX's choice as the winner.
In 2019, U.S. officials announced that in 2024, U.S. astronauts will land on the moon for the first time since the Apollo program. Under the new program, called Artemis, the U.S., along with ESA and other space agencies, will also create a visiting Gatewaystation in lunar orbit. To accelerate development, NASA has put many elements of the program in the hands of private companies. In particular, in 2020, the agency announced three companies, contenders for a contract to create a lander to deliver people and cargo from the orbiting station to the surface of the Moon. They were SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics. The last two companies proposed spacecraft projects from scratch, and SpaceX decided to use the lunar version of Starship, the second stage of the eponymous super-heavy rocket while serving as a spacecraft.
NASA said it plans to select up to two winners who will receive final development contracts and the first missions. On April 16, 2021, the agency announced that SpaceX had received a contract to build a lunar lander. NASA explained that the SpaceX project won both the requested $2.9 billion and the technical analysis of the projects.
A week and a half after NASA's decision, both the company's losers, Blue Origin and Dynetics, appealed the agency's decision to the U.S. Chamber of Accounts. Blue Origin justified the appeal by several factors. The company considered that NASA had incorrectly considered blue Origin and SpaceX projects, underestimating the first and not giving importance to the shortcomings of the second. In addition, Blue Origin pointed out that NASA had changed the weight of the project parameters at almost the last minute and gave the main importance to the value of the contract (this was due to a reduction in funding for the lunar program). Dynetics justified its appeal against NASA's decision by saying that the agency had known for months that it would not receive enough funding for the competition, and the head of NASA said back in February that landing astronauts in 2024 no longer looks realistic. In the current situation, Dynetics notes, NASA had to revise the terms of the competition, ask the company to adjust their projects, or cancel the competition altogether.
Days after Blue Origin and Dynetics protested the results of the competition, NASA asked SpaceX to stop all work related to the contract until the counting chamber considers the situation and makes its decision on the correctness of the results of the competition.
According to the rules, the counting chamber has 100 days to hear complaints. Thus, the decision will be handed down no later than August 4. It is worth noting that the suspension of development concerns the lunar version of Starship, while work on the usual version can continue. In addition, the lunar version of Starship has not much different from the main: it will be devoid of flaps and heat shield but will be equipped with engines at the top of the hull, which will allow you to land on the surface of the Moon, almost without affecting the regolith, unlike the main engines located at the bottom of the ship. Thus, the suspension of work is unlikely to have a significant impact on the overall development period.
In their appeals, Blue Origin and Dynetics noted the decline in competition in the lunar program due to the choice of SpaceX. In part, these concerns may be related to previous NASA decisions: the agency previously commissioned SpaceX to launch the first modules of the Gateway lunar station and deliver cargo to it.