The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s pre-award protest against the Air Force, which alleged that the service’s launch services procurement (LSP) program requirements restricted competition and were inconsistent with commercial practice.

The launch venture company filed a pre-award protest in August that alleged that the service’s plan to award launch services for national security payloads through 2027 to only two providers made it “impossible” for new vendors to compete with legacy contractors (Defense Daily, Aug. 12).

Multiple outlets reported Nov. 18 that Kenneth Patton, managing associate general counsel for procurement law at GAO, had reached a decision on the protest although the written decision has yet to be publicly released.

Patton said in a statement provided Nov. 19 to Defense Daily that GAO supported Blue Origin’s protest because “the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable.”

“According to the RFP, the government will make the two awards by deciding which combination of two independently developed proposals offers the best value to the government,” Patton said. That methodology lacks “a reasonable, common basis on which offerors will be expected to compete and have their proposals evaluated,” and the Air Force should amend its solicitation, he continued.

GAO denied two other provisions in the solicitation that were challenged by Blue Origin, such as that a provision within the RFP that allowed for competitors to provide a backup launch solution would unfairly benefit legacy contractors.

“GAO found that the other challenged provisions were reasonable and in accordance with applicable procurement law and regulation,” Patton said.

Air Force Chief of Media Operations Ann Stefanek said in a Nov. 19 email that the service is “pleased that GAO has validated the Air Force’s fundamental acquisition strategy and source selection approach” for the program.

“The Air Force is reviewing the single ground of protest sustained by the GAO and expects to resolve this issue definitively and expeditiously,” Stefanek continued. “The Air Force remains confident in its acquisition strategy and Phase 2 contract award in the third quarter of FY ‘20.”

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith thanked the GAO “for their careful consideration of these serious issues” in a statement provided Tuesday.

“This is an important mission to Blue Origin, and we remain committed to our long-term partnership with the Air Force and to working with them as they address the GAO’s recommendations,” hes said. “We look forward to continuing our participation in this process and working with the Air Force as they incorporate the GAO’s feedback during the LSP source selection.”

Blue Origin is vying for the national security space launch (NSSL) contracts along with Space X, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems [NOC] and United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint launch venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT].

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has been a frequent critic of the Air Force’s launch services procurement program, and told reporters Tuesday that while he had not yet read the full details of the GAO’s decision, “the basic sentiment that we need to do a better job to ensure competition in space launch is something I have been advocating for strongly for quite a while.”

He wrote a letter in March to then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson warning that he believed the LSP Phase 2 RFP “risks undermining the Air Force’s goal of maximizing and sustaining fair and open competition and without sufficient information to properly evaluate next generation launch systems” (Defense Daily, March 29).

Space X in May filed a federal lawsuit that challenges the Air Force’s launch services agreement (LSA) contracts that were issued as part of Phase 1 of the LSP to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA in October 2018 to develop new rockets (Defense Daily, Oct. 10). The service noted at the time that Space X already had launch vehicles that are certified for national security launches – the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy – but Space X alleged that the LSA contracts unfairly benefited its competitors.