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Blue Origin files protest in controversial rocket competition

John M. Donnelly, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- In a move that will reverberate in Congress, a top U.S. rocket manufacturer formally protested on Monday the terms of a multi-billion-dollar Air Force competition for launching America's future national security satellites.

Blue Origin of Washington state, one of four likely bidders for the work, filed its protest with the Government Accountability Office, citing concerns that the contract solicitation the Air Force issued in the spring is unfair.

"Current and future competition is unnecessarily and detrimentally limited by" the solicitation, Blue Origin said in its protest, a redacted copy of which CQ Roll Call obtained.

The solicitation currently "includes evaluation criteria that are ambiguous and fail to comply with federal procurement statutes and regulations," Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, said in a separate statement. "Unless the Air Force changes its approach, this procurement will perpetuate a market duopoly in national security space launch well into the next decade."

The result, the company argued, would be "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."

At issue is an Air Force plan to pick two companies for heavy-lift rocket launches -- essentially, to define who will be the U.S. government's rocket contractors for the foreseeable future.

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Bids for the program are due Monday. The bidders are expected to be Blue Origin, which will offer its New Glenn rocket; SpaceX of California, whose founder and CEO is Tesla maker Elon Musk and which will offer its Falcon rockets; Northrop Grumman of Virginia, which is pitching a rocket called OmegA; and United Launch Alliance, which has headquarters in Colorado, with its Vulcan Centaur.

The competition has spawned a fierce lobbying campaign among the contending companies, and many of the most senior members of the Pentagon oversight panels in Congress are actively engaged in the issue. The program itself was a creation of Congress, which has sought to wean the Air Force off rockets propelled by Russian-made engines.

Blue Origin has a major benefactor in Washington Democrat Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in whose district the company is headquartered.

On the other side of the ledger, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, among others, is a longtime supporter of United Launch Alliance, one of the government's two incumbent launch service providers. ULA has a large factory in his state. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman also have powerful champions on Capitol Hill.

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