SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one. Credit: SpaceX

SANTA FE, N.M. — NASA will stop work on a Human Landing System award to SpaceX through the end of October as a federal court takes up a suit filed by Blue Origin protesting the contract.

The Court of Federal Claims issued a schedule Aug. 19 for a suit filed by Blue Origin protesting NASA’s HLS award to SpaceX. The schedule lays out deadlines for filings to be made by both Blue Origin and the federal government, the defendant in the case. Oral arguments in the suit are scheduled for Oct. 14.

The schedule also included a “NASA Voluntary Stay of Performance” that expires Nov. 1. That appeared to indicate that NASA would stop work on the HLS contract less than three weeks after the Government Accountability Office denied Blue Origin’s protest, allowing work that had been halted since late April to proceed.

“NASA has voluntarily paused work with SpaceX for the human landing system (HLS) Option A contract effective Aug. 19 through Nov. 1. In exchange for this temporary stay of work, all parties agreed to an expedited litigation schedule that concludes on Nov. 1,” the agency said in a statement to SpaceNews. “NASA officials are continuing to work with the Department of Justice to review the details of the case and look forward to a timely resolution of this matter.”

In an interview with SpaceNews Aug. 19 before the release of the case schedule, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he expected some clarity on the schedule of the case, including any requirement for a stop-work order, in the next two weeks.

He added, though, that the Justice Department, and not NASA, handles the case in federal court. “This is a matter that is out of our hands. It’s in the legal system and it’s being handled by the Department of Justice.”

The effect of the suit on the overall Artemis program is “further delay,” he warned. “The judge could require, in essence, very laborious discovery.”

Blue Origin filed the suit Aug. 13, two weeks after the GAO denied protests both it and Dynetics filed of the HLS “Option A” award made to SpaceX. The companies separately argued that NASA improperly evaluated their proposals as well as claiming that NASA should have revised or canceled the solicitation once it concluded it didn’t have the funding to make more than one award. The GAO rejected those arguments.

“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” the company said in an Aug. 16 statement. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.”

The suit adds further doubt that NASA can achieve the goal set by the previous administration of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2024. NASA’s Office of Inspector General said in an Aug. 10 report that the spacesuits needed for the Artemis 3 lunar landing mission won’t be ready before April 2025, but added the suits are among several factors that “preclude a 2024 landing.”

Asked about the 2024 deadline, Nelson said he didn’t know if that was still possible, citing both the HLS lawsuit and the delays with the suit, as well as ongoing efforts to win more funding for the HLS program to support a second lander provider. “I don’t know the answer to your question,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...