A federal judge on Thursday rejected Jeff Bezos’ latest legal attempt to overturn NASA’s multibillion-dollar moon lander contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ending a monthslong battle between the space companies of the world’s two richest men.
The dispute created a significant obstacle to NASA’s plans for returning humans to the moon for the first time since 1972. The ruling leaves Mr. Bezos’ company with few other legal avenues to challenge the contract, making it more likely that whenever American astronauts return to the lunar surface, they will be traveling in a spacecraft built by Mr. Musk’s company.
But NASA has been unable to work on the program with SpaceX for the duration of Blue Origin’s legal challenges, which may delay the return to the moon.
“It’s been disappointing to not be able to make progress,” said Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, in an interview on Wednesday before the ruling was announced. She added that meeting with the company to assess the timeline for the moon mission was a “very high priority” for NASA.
Mr. Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, sued NASA in August, contending that the agency unfairly awarded to SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in April to conduct the first two missions to the moon. The launches are to be part of Artemis, NASA’s flagship effort to build an American presence on the lunar surface.
Judge Richard A. Hertling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims denied Blue Origin’s arguments and sided with NASA on Thursday. But his full order was sealed, leaving his reasoning for the ruling so far unknown.
A spokesman for Blue Origin said the company’s lawsuit highlighted what it considered “important safety issues” in NASA’s effort to award funds for a lunar lander “that must still be addressed,” but added: “We look forward to hearing from NASA on next steps” for future moon lander competitions under the Artemis program.
NASA did not immediately comment on the ruling.
While SpaceX did not comment, Mr. Musk, reacting to the ruling, posted an image on Twitter referencing “Judge Dredd,” a dystopian science fiction comic book and film, that said: “You have been judged.”
The contract feud was one of many industry conflicts that reflected the clashing ambitions of two billionaire entrepreneurs who are pouring billions of dollars into rival efforts to normalize space transportation.
Mr. Musk, the chief executive and founder of SpaceX and Tesla, which makes electric cars, started the space company in 2002 with dreams of making humanity a “multiplanetary” species. And Mr. Bezos, the founder and former chief executive of Amazon, started Blue Origin in 2000 with the goal of having “millions of people living and working in space.”
Those lofty pursuits underpinned six months of legal jostling, rigorous lobbying and public complaining waged by Blue Origin after it lost to SpaceX in NASA’s moon lander program. That coveted contract to put humans on the moon would have provided a crucial boost to the credibility of Blue Origin, which has flown humans to the edge of space but never into Earth’s orbit or beyond.
Blue Origin had partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to develop and offer its Blue Moon lunar lander for $5.9 billion, assembling a team of aerospace heavyweights that it thought would be too good for NASA to turn down and betting that the space agency would be willing to negotiate a lower price if necessary.
NASA initially wanted to pick two different lunar lander systems, in case one fell behind during development, but was limited by funding from Congress, which last year allocated only a quarter of what the White House requested for the program. NASA ended up giving a contract to SpaceX alone, as the company’s bid was half the price of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon proposal.
The NASA funds, now unlocked by the agency’s court victory, will help fuel the whirlwind development of Starship, a fully reusable system that is the centerpiece of Mr. Musk’s ambitions to eventually send people to Mars. The company has been developing and test launching the rocket at its rapidly expanding facilities in South Texas. After several tests of the vehicle that ended in explosions, the company completed a high-altitude flight that landed successfully in May. In the near future, the company plans an orbital test of the spacecraft with no passengers aboard.
The NASA contract calls for two Starship trips to the moon and back, with the second mission carrying American astronauts. NASA’s stated deadline for the lunar landing, first announced by the Trump administration, is 2024.
But that was widely viewed as unrealistic even before Blue Origin’s legal challenges, which forced NASA to pause work with SpaceX while the litigation played out for six months.
In an initial Blue Origin protest with the Government Accountability Office filed in April, the company argued that NASA should have canceled or changed the rules of the program when it realized it couldn’t afford two lander systems (another company, Dynetics, filed a similar complaint). The office rejected that argument, and dozens more, ruling NASA had fairly evaluated all the proposals.