An artist's impression of what a futuristic Moon Base might look like. Credit: European Space Agency.

“Water from the Moon” is a phrase coined by Christopher Koch in his novel The Year of Living Dangerously.

While actually an invention of Koch’s, it purports to be a traditional Javanese phrase.

I took it to mean, something that was unattainable. Something you could never have.

It’s likely that aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin and the National Team, spearheaded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based defence contractor Dynetics, had similar feelings after seeing their NASA lunar contract hopes go up in smoke.

Both cried foul about a lunar lander contract was awarded to Elon Musk’s SpaceX last month for US$2.9bn, and, thanks to the protests, NASA’s plans for sending American astronauts back to the moon by 2024 have been put on hold, Al Jazeera reported.

And both Dynetics and Blue Origin have filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA, with Bezos’s company accusing the space agency of having “moved the goalposts at the last minute.”

The two aerospace giants claim the agency gave SpaceX an unfair advantage.

That’s because the agency had to ask SpaceX, which was the lowest bidder, to revise its payment schedule to align with NASA’s budget, the report said.

In its protest, Blue Origin alleged NASA had allowed SpaceX to renegotiate its price without extending the same opportunity to the National Team (a partnership between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper), whose proposal was significantly more expensive than SpaceX’s.

SpaceX’s bid was $2.89bn, while Blue Origin came in much higher at $5.9bn and Dynetics was higher still, but its official bid amount was not disclosed.

Of the three bidders, Dynetics was the lowest-ranked, receiving a technical rating of “marginal,” whereas both SpaceX and Blue Origin received an “acceptable.”

However, Dynetics’ management rating of “very good” was on par with Blue Origin’s, while SpaceX was ranked “outstanding” in that category, the report said.

NASA was expected to rate the teams based on several factors, which included the cost and technical merit of their proposed landing systems.

SpaceX also plans to use a variant of its Starship as the proposed human landing system, which Blue Origin claims is “incompatible with other US commercial launch vehicles, further restricting NASA’s alternatives and entrenching SpaceX’s monopolistic control of NASA deep space exploration.”

The highly coveted contract is for a Human Landing System (HLS) that will ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for NASA as part of its Artemis moon program, the report said.

But this time, it will rely on commercial partners to develop some of the necessary hardware — a first for deep-space missions.

The pending litigation has forced the US space agency to put the brakes on any work related to the contract until the GAO issues its ruling, which is expected by August 4.

The space battle between SpaceX and Blue Origin that has been raging for years — with Musk openly taunting fellow billionaire Bezos locker-room style on Twitter, the report said.

Over the past decade, both have repeatedly butted heads over their rival space programs, and Musk has usually prevailed.

It was SpaceX, not Blue Origin, that won NASA’s nod to use Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Pad 39A in 2013.

Two years later, SpaceX turned back Blue Origin’s effort to patent the procedure for landing a rocket at sea, the report said.

And last year, Blue Origin lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in a multibillion-dollar competition for rocket development support from the US Space Force.

Musk’s recent tweets have also indicated that perhaps Blue Origin wasn’t selected because the company does not yet have a rocket that can reach orbit.

Musk gleefully twisted the knife on Twitter, using a phrase with sexual overtones.

“Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol,” he wrote.

SpaceX successfully returned four astronauts safely back to Earth on Sunday following a 167-day stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

This marked the end of SpaceX’s first long-duration mission for NASA and is one of three different crewed missions the company has launched in less than a year.

Kathy Leuders, NASA’s head of human spaceflight, said NASA’s limited budget (requesting US $3bn and receiving only 25% of that) forced the agency to select only one provider for now, instead of also selecting a redundancy backup, the report said.

“I do not have enough funding available to even attempt to negotiate a price from Blue Origin that could potentially enable a contract award,” Leuders said.

NASA was left to select the most cost-effective and technically feasible option.

Musk’s comments to The Washington Post addressed questions about Blue Origin’s protest more directly. He referred to the fact that Blue Origin’s team was seeking US$6 billion from NASA to develop its lunar lander.

“The BO bid was just way too high,” said Musk, referring to Blue Origin by its initials. “Double that of SpaceX and SpaceX has much more hardware progress.”

NASA is planning on flying astronauts to the moon via its own rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS).

The massive launch vehicle will surpass the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo days in terms of power and will carry the agency’s Orion crew capsule up to a lunar outpost called Gateway.

Every SLS configuration uses the core stage with four RS-25 engines. The first SLS vehicle, called Block 1, can send more than 27 metric tons or 59,500 pounds to orbits beyond the Moon.

It will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 liquid propellant engines. After reaching space, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) sends Orion on to the Moon.

The agency is also relying on commercial partners to build this mini space station, which would house astronauts and allow them to stay in lunar orbit for prolonged periods of time— something that wasn’t possible with the Apollo program.

SpaceX’s role would be to provide a taxi service from Gateway to the lunar surface and back. But if Musk and his company can’t deliver the goods on time, it won’t stop NASA from actually reaching lunar orbit, because NASA will be using its own massive rocket to do that.

(Editor’s update: SpaceX’s Starship completed a test on Wednesday — video below— that marked the first time it successfully launched and landed. The rocket, designated SN15, lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas, at 5:27 p.m. local time. It reached an altitude of 10 kilometres … then fired its thrusters, flipped itself in the upright position, extended its landing legs and touched down softly.)

— with files from GeekWire.com, NASA and The Washington Post

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