Blue Origin protests Air Force launch RFP; Northrop, SpaceX, ULA confirm bid submissions

August 12, 2019

By Courtney Albon

Blue Origin confirmed today it has filed a pre-award protest with the Government Accountability Office over the Air Force's Launch Services Procurement effort.

In a fact sheet obtained today by Inside Defense, the company contends the Air Force's plan to select two launch providers to fly a five-year slate of national security space missions is a "flawed acquisition strategy" that impedes a fair competition.

The company is one of four likely bidders for the service's LSP program, along with SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman. The Air Force released a request for proposals in early May and proposals are due today. Blue Origin submitted a bid for the RFP on Aug. 9, and Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and ULA both confirmed today they have submitted proposals or intend to by the end of the day.

"Overall, the RFP terms are onerous, unnecessary, and will not get best value by leveraging commercial best practices," the Blue Origin fact sheet states. "Unfortunately, they reflect a failure by the Air Force to implement agile and cost-effective acquisition strategies."

The service awarded three other transaction agreements last October to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance, and plans to down select to two providers next spring. The winners will split its launch manifest between 2022 and 2026 -- one company would perform 60% of the launches and the other company 40%.

Space News first reported the protest filing.

Blue Origin has been open about its concerns with the acquisition strategy, and has proposed delaying the contract award by up to two years. Inside Defense reported in May the company is concerned the RFP favors incumbent launch providers ULA and SpaceX, and a source familiar with the competition said the "anti-competitive" issues could justify a protest if not addressed in the final RFP.

"As drafted the LSP RFP included evaluation criteria that are ambiguous and fail to comply with federal procurement statutes and regulations," the fact sheet states. "This subjectivity of the criteria makes it impossible to accurately respond to the RFP. . . . It is essential that the Air Force structure the LSP RFP in a way that fosters a fair and level playing field for new entrants."

One of the company's primary concerns is the service's plan to select only two companies in the next phase of competition. Blue Origin argues the strategy restricts future competition by limiting it in the near term, claiming that companies that do not receive funding to continue developing their proposals will have more barriers to future launch services contracts.

"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," the company's fact sheet states.

However, the Air Force has said allowing more providers a share of the near-term launch slate is more expensive, adding that the manifest is not large enough to support more than two companies.