Updated at 12:15 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A spat between Blue Origin and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) over Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, a disused space shuttle launch pad both companies want to lease from NASA, escalated when Blue Origin challenged the legality of the agency’s search for a caretaker.

On Sept. 3, Blue Origin filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) alleging that “there’s a problem with [NASA’s] solicitation that needs to be addressed,” according to Ralph White, GAO’s managing associate general counsel for procurement law. 

GAO must rule on Blue Origin’s protest by Dec. 12, White said. With rare exceptions, White added, agencies may not award contracts when a solicitation is under protest.

Neither White nor Blue Origin spokeswoman Gwen Griffin would disclose the details of the Kent, Wash.-based company’s complaint. However, Blue Origin and SpaceX have been butting heads for months over their competing lease proposals. Blue Origin offered to operate the Florida pad on behalf of anyone technically and financially capable of launching from it, while SpaceX would keep the pad to itself.

SpaceX will not be sitting on the sidelines while GAO considers Blue Origin’s protest. The company is participating in the case as an intervenor, White said. SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin declined to comment about the company’s involvement. 

Blue Origin filed its protest with at least five U.S. senators in its corner. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and David Vitter (R-La.) registered their concerns about an exclusive lease in a Sept. 5 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

NASA has been trying since May to rid its books of $1.2 million in annual maintenance costs for Pad 39A, which the agency says it no longer needs. 

Now, with a GAO decision about the protest not due until mid-December, NASA could find itself paying for maintenance a little longer than it expected — the agency wanted to secure a tenant by Sept. 30.  

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, which already launches cargo delivery missions to the international space station from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with its Falcon 9 rocket, is eyeing Pad 39A as a possible launch site for the Falcon Heavy it is developing.

Blue Origin has tested suborbital vehicles but has launched nothing to space so far. In addition to some U.S. lawmakers, Blue Origin’s multiuser Pad 39A proposal is backed by United Launch Alliance of Denver, which uses Cape Canaveral to launch payloads for NASA and the Defense Department. United Launch Alliance is slated to perform initial launches of the biconic space vehicle Blue Origin is developing. 

While NASA seldom discusses ongoing procurements, the agency suggested in an Aug. 2 letter to lawmakers that any operating concept, single or multiuser, is preferable to tearing down Pad 39A, which NASA says it would have to do if it cannot find a commercial lessee.

“NASA believes that the argument for or against one operating concept is secondary to the demonstrated capability of any proposer to undertake the financial and technical challenges of assuming an asset of this magnitude,” wrote L. Seth Statler, NASA’s associate administrator for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, in an Aug. 2 letter to Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.). 

Aderholt, who represents a district nearby the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., was concerned that such a lease would leave NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket without a backup launch pad.

The Space Launch System is currently slated to launch from Pad 39B,  Kennedy’s other shuttle launch facility. Statler, in his response to Aderholt and Wolf’s July 22 letter, said the big rocket did not need a backup pad. Furthermore, Statler added, the heavy-lifter could easily share Pad 39B with other rockets, even if its launch rate were higher than one mission every four years, as NASA now plans.


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...