When NASA selected two relatively small, new players in the space launcher game to provide cargo rocket supplies to the ISS during the gap between the Shuttle and Ares programs it represented something of a giant leap for the space industry. But now there's been a formal protest from the jilted third bidder to the Government Accountability Office, meaning the process has to go on hold.
NASA recently selected Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. to supply the International Space Station with cargo for a six year period starting in 2010, and awarded a juicy $3.5 billion in funding to the two small companies. Both function largely outside of the main giant space/military manufacturer complex.
But the third bidder for the contracts, who lost out completely in the NASA decision is now complaining. It's PlanetSpace, a consortium of Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Alliant Techsystems Inc. who all are existing players in the rocketry market, and giant ones at that. The gripe, officially lodged with the GAO on Wednesday, is that it apparently offered a better, lower-cost deal to NASA than at least one of the winning bidders.
According to a company statement "The PlanetSpace proposal represented better value to the government. We believe that the GAO will find that flaws in the procurement justify award to PlanetSpace."
NASA is required to cease work towards supporting the contract projects, and respond formally within 30 days -- the GAO will then issue a response by April 29th.
Does this sound familiar? Consider the fiasco caused by another billion-dollar contract that went to surprising winners: the next-generation military aircraft tanker replacement. When Airbus won with its A330 modification there was uproar and a formal complaint to the GAO that halted the project, which is now in a political mess. The complainer in this other billion-dollar case? Boeing.
Though the ISS cargo missions are less "critical" than the military tanker fleet, any delays to the process are going to be problematic. And there are already significant questions over the decision to end the Shuttle program before the next-gen NASA vehicles are ready.