After months of speculation, Blue Origin has filed a pre-award protest to the Government Accountability Office claiming the terms outlined in the Air Force’s Launch Services Procurement (LSP) solicitation impedes fair competition and makes it “impossible” for new vendors to compete against legacy providers.

The protest was filed Aug. 12, the company confirmed to Defense Daily. The news was first reported Monday by Space News.

Artist’s illustration of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle. Photo: Blue Origin.

“The Air Force is pursuing a flawed acquisition strategy for the National Security Space Launch program,” Blue Origin said in a fact sheet provided to this outlet. “Unless the Air Force changes its approach, this procurement will perpetuate a market duopoly in national security space launch well into the next decade, causing higher launch prices, less assured access to space, and a missed opportunity to expand our national security interests and bolster U.S. leadership in space.”

Blue Origin has previously critiqued the Air Force’s forthcoming LSP competition, where two launch providers would be responsible for about 34 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions to be ordered between fiscal years 2020 and 2024, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed concern about the program’s potential impact on competition (Defense Daily, March 29). The company plans to continue its participation in the program and submitted its proposal for the phase 2 request for proposals on Aug. 9, a spokesperson said Monday.

A redacted public version of the pre-award protest to GAO shows that Blue Origin considers the current request for proposals to be unfairly limiting to two providers and disadvantages new players. Back in March, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was not enough work available for three contract awards.

“None of the offerors’ business cases would close if we open it up to three,” he said. “The longer we maintain the status quo, the more taxpayer dollars are going to a less competitive environment than we anticipate under LSP.”

Blue Origin disputed that assessment in its protest request.

“If the Air Force is unsure whether more than two companies are financially sustainable, why is it executing an NSSL acquisition strategy that ignores commercial viability of providers and squashes nascent competition by locking out non-selected providers for over five years, while also terminating their NSSL-unique development activities?” the redacted protest said. “As GAO itself has recommended, the Agency should make incremental purchases until the Agency has more information about how many competitors the market can support.”

The fact sheet also calls out the service’s phase 2 request for proposals as containing “unclear and ambiguous selection criteria and states that many of the technical requirements are “too vague to actually price.” The company notes that the Air Force allowing a backup launch vehicle solution favors incumbent providers as well.

Industry providers United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint launch venture between Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA] – Northrop Grumman Innovation Solutions [NOC] and Space X have each expressed a desire to compete for the Air Force’s LSP program. ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin received Phase 1 contracts in 2018 to develop a launch vehicle prototype by 2021 (Defense Daily, Oct. 10, 2018).

In its pre-award protest, Blue Origin noted that it has invested over $2.5 billion in personal funds for its proposed New Glenn launch system, with over $1 billion of that funding going toward setting up manufacturing and launch facilities in the United States. The Air Force awarded Blue Origin up to $500 million under the Phase 1 Launch Services Agreement (LSA) contract to go toward New Glenn development – meanwhile, ULA could receive up to $967 million and Northrop Grumman could receive up to $792 million. Per the Air Force contract, offerors do not get to keep that full potential amount of funding if its proposal is not selected for Phase 2, which would also disadvantage new players from participating in future launch service competitions, Blue Origin stated.

The company also claimed that the Air Force was forced to delay the LSA competition and subsequent awards “due to intense lobbying by a heritage engine supplier,” but kept the same release date for the subsequent Phase 2 RFP, which was released this past May (Defense Daily, May 6). That meant that the LSA awardees only had about seven months of “compressed development time” between receiving the funding and competing for the Phase 2 RFP.

“Non-incumbent offerors were not afforded a timely process to incorporate NSS [national security space] requirements into their commercial launch vehicle and ground infrastructure designs,” Blue Origin said in the protest request.

In addition to its own submission for the LSP program, Blue Origin is also providing its BE-4 engine for ULA’s submission, the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. The company noted in the fact sheet that it used private funding to build the BE-4.

Air Force Spokesman Maj. Will Russell said in a Monday email to Defense Daily, “The Air Force cannot comment on further details regarding specific evaluation determinations as they are source selection sensitive.”