Main Engine Cut Off

Blue Origin’s Protest Successful: Air Force to Revise Criteria for NSSL

Blue Origin filed a protest back in August with a handful of complaints about the selection criteria for the National Security Space Launch program. The Government Accountability Office sided with Blue Origin on what seems like the most important complaint, but threw out a handful of other ones.

The GAO released a redacted version of their decision, which contains the best description of the selection criteria that Blue Origin protested and the Air Force will modify:

The Air Force does not contemplate performing a “typical source selection”, wherein the agency would rank the proposals and then conduct individual trade off determinations for the first and then second requirements contract. COS at 13-14. Rather, the RFP contemplates that award will be made to the two offerors that, “when combined, represent the overall best value to the Government.” RFP, attach. No. 6, Evaluation Criteria, at 2. In response to the protest, the contracting officer explains that the Air Force does not intend to conduct a tradeoff based on the individual merits of each individual proposal, but, rather, intends to conduct a tradeoff based on pairings of proposals.

This “when combined” clause was the biggest issue, as it makes the selection criteria murky, and in my eyes, easily manipulable. That clause makes it easy to shut down any protests or arguments after an award—the Air Force could rely on the explanation, “These two went together the best.”

Blue Origin likely—rightfully—saw that clause as one of the biggest ways they could lose out to SpaceX and ULA. After all, which two offerors go together better than the two flying these missions reliably right now?

The other complaints that the GAO did not agree with had to do with things that would more obviously benefit Blue Origin over others—they wanted to see three providers selected instead of two, they wanted to see two-year awards instead of five, and so on. In those two circumstances, Blue Origin would be selected as the third provider after SpaceX and ULA, because OmegA is a hot mess, and Blue Origin would have a good shot at winning two-year awards in the future when New Glenn is flying.

The Air Force will be removing the “when combined” clause and will not be modifying their selection size or timelines, so the stage is set for the best providers to win.

Blue Origin needs to show that they’re doing great work and have an attractive offer, and ULA needs to buckle down now that the path is not as easy for them as it was before.

I will still be shocked if the selection result is not SpaceX and ULA, in that order, but the GAO decision certainly opens up the possibilities here.