GAO Denies Blue Origin’s Bid Protest of Pad 39A Lease

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WASHINGTON — Blue Origin’s bid to lease a disused space shuttle launchpad from NASA will get no help from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which on Dec. 12 denied a protest from the Kent, Wash.-based company that challenged the fairness of NASA’s method for choosing a lessee. 

Blue Origin has been at loggerheads with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) about leasing Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for months. SpaceX wanted exclusive use of the pad, which the Hawthorne, Calif., company said could be used to launch the Falcon Heavy booster it is developing. Blue Origin — whose case was supported by its business partner United Launch Alliance (ULA) — wanted to make the pad a multiuser facility. 

According to a 12-page decision GAO released Dec. 12, Blue Origin claimed a proposal to turn the pad into a multiuser facility should carry more weight with NASA selection officials because it better fulfilled the agency’s desire, expressed in a May 23 solicitation, to make “fullest commercial use of LC-39A.”

Blue Origin also alleged that NASA intended to award a lease based on factors other than those enumerated in the solicitation after NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said publicly that Launch Complex 39B, another old shuttle launch pad, could be adapted for multiple users. That, the company argued, amounted to a bias in favor of a single-user proposal for 39A, according to GAO’s decision document. 

Blue Origin registered these concerns in a letter to NASA. That drew an Aug. 23 reply in which the agency said the solicitation expressed no preference for either a single- or multiuser approach. This answer was not good enough for Blue Origin, which then appealed to GAO.

GAO ultimately agreed with NASA and denied the protest. The agency’s solicitation, GAO decided, allowed for either single- or multiuser concepts. 

Technically, the competition to lease Pad 39A — which NASA told GAO investigators would be allowed to “rust to the ground” if no lessee is found — is ongoing. Blue Origin’s Sept. 3 protest effectively put NASA’s plan to lease the facility on hold, and GAO’s Dec. 12 decision means the hold has been lifted.

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel, reached Dec. 12 by email, would not say how long it might be before NASA made a decision on a lease. He cited the ongoing evlaution of SpaceX and Blue Origin’s proposals.

“Given today’s GAO ruling, NASA is looking forward in the near future to selecting an industry partner for negotiations to lease and operate LC-39A,” Beutel wrote in a Dec. 12 email.

NASA has previously expressed some urgency to make the old shuttle pad someone else’s problem. Pad 39A costs the agency about $1.2 million a year to maintain in a mothballed state. NASA said this summer it wanted to get a lease signed before Oct. 1.

 

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