Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, two of the richest men in the world, both with dreams of leading humanity out into the solar system, are fighting over the moon.
On Monday, Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Bezos, who will step down as Amazon’s CEO later this year, filed a 50-page protest with the federal Government Accountability Office, challenging a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX from NASA to build a lander for American astronauts to return to the moon.
NASA announced this month that Musk's SpaceX was the sole winner in the competition, beating Blue Origin and a third company, Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama, a defense contractor.
Dynetics also filed a protest with the GAO on Monday. The company did not reply to questions about its response. NASA acknowledged it had been notified of the protests. "NASA cannot provide further comment due to pending litigation," the agency said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.
The dispute highlights that whatever the outsize ambitions of Musk and Bezos for the future, the present fortunes of their space companies and the ability to generate the profits needed to pay for their grandiose dreams depend on mundane business concerns like jousting for government contracts.
Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, said NASA's decision was based on flawed evaluations of the bids — misjudging advantages of Blue Origin’s proposal and downplaying technical challenges in SpaceX’s. He also said NASA had placed a bigger emphasis on bottom-line cost than it said it would.
"It's really atypical for NASA to make these kinds of errors," Smith said in an interview. "They're generally quite good at acquisition, especially its flagship missions like returning America to the surface of the moon. We felt that these errors needed to be addressed and remedied.”
SpaceX did not reply to a request for comment, but in a tweet directed at a Times reporter, Musk made a remark that played off the fact that Blue Origin has not yet achieved orbit with any of its rockets.
SpaceX, in particular, has thrived in the new entrepreneurial approach to spaceflight. Its Falcon 9 rocket, used for the space station missions, is now a workhorse for launching commercial satellites.
Blue Origin lags behind SpaceX's accomplishments. Its small, successfully tested New Shepard spacecraft is meant only for short, suborbital jaunts. A larger New Glenn rocket will not make its maiden flight until at least 2022.
By Kenneth Chang
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