- Blue Origin sued NASA after the agency picked SpaceX to land astronauts on the moon.
- NASA's administrator said this "legal wrangling" has thrown its moon-landing timeline into question.
- But experts already thought NASA was unlikely to meet its goal of putting boots on the moon in 2024.
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The rocket company, founded by Jeff Bezos, sued NASA last month after the agency decided to award a contract to SpaceX, not Blue Origin, to build the next moon lander for astronauts. The suit alleges that SpaceX's proposal did not meet NASA's requirements, and that the decision therefore violates "fundamental tenets" of government-contract procurement law.
NASA's Artemis program aims to use SpaceX's lander, a version of its Starship megarocket, to put boots on the moon in 2024. The mission plan calls for NASA to launch astronauts aboard its own Orion spaceship, which would then rendezvous with Starship in lunar orbit. Two of the astronauts would move to the SpaceX vehicle, which would then descend to the lunar surface to give the astronaut pair a week of exploring.
But NASA's administrator, Bill Nelson, admitted in a press conference on Tuesday that he can no longer say when that will all happen.
Associated Press reporter Marcia Dunn asked Nelson whether NASA still had a shot at a 2024 moon landing, and he replied: "You want to call the federal judge and ask him?"
"The answer is we don't know at this point," he said. "We're gonna move with all dispatch as soon as we know the legal realm, and then we can better answer your question."
NASA subsequently confirmed to Insider that Nelson was referring to Blue Origin's lawsuit.
'Legal wrangling' has frozen progress on SpaceX's lunar lander
Before NASA sends any astronauts to the moon, it plans to launch an uncrewed mission called Artemis I. That would send the Orion spaceship around the moon without passengers, and it's planned for later this year or early next year. After that, Artemis II would send an Orion spaceship on a similar flight, but with astronauts on board, in late 2023 or early 2024. Artemis III would then land astronauts on the lunar surface.
NASA won't use SpaceX's vehicle until that third mission - it will proceed with the first two on its own. But SpaceX can't currently move forward in developing its moon lander until the Blue Origin lawsuit is resolved. NASA agreed to this work stoppage in exchange for an expedited schedule in court, with litigation set to conclude on November 1.
Blue Origin and another aerospace company, Dynetics, were finalists for the moon-lander contract. NASA was expected to pick two winners, but it chose only SpaceX for the time being. SpaceX's $2.9 billion bid was much lower than the prices its competitors offered, according to NASA's selection statement.
The US Federal Court released a redacted version of Blue Origin's lawsuit on Wednesday. In it, the company argues that SpaceX's proposal didn't meet NASA's requirements, and that "NASA inexplicably disregarded key flight safety requirements for only SpaceX," a decision the company alleges was "arbitrary, capricious, and irrational."
The crux of Blue Origin's argument is that SpaceX's plan does not require it to conduct flight-readiness reviews for uncrewed Starship launches before its moon landing. In such a review, NASA and SpaceX sit down together and spend nearly a day going through their checklists and ensuring they're ready for flight. SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, have both said the company intends to conduct these reviews.
"If you have a coin, you can flip it as to what's going to happen in the legal wrangling that's going on right now," Nelson said on Tuesday.
"What is the federal judge going to decide?" he continued. "When is he going to decide? What is the further legal possibilities about that? And once we know better about things like that, then we can answer on Artemis III, and then after that Artemis IV."
A 2024 moon landing is unlikely anyway
Regardless of Blue Origin's lawsuit, many experts think a 2024 moon landing is unlikely, even impossible. SpaceX's Starship hasn't flown to orbit yet. And the rocket NASA is building to launch its Orion spaceship has faced a series of delays.
"Just too many things have to happen for it to be feasible," John Logsdon, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council and founder of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, told Insider.
In an August report, the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that it's "not feasible" for the agency to meet the 2024 goal, largely due to delays in its spacesuit development.