WASHINGTON — Blue Origin has successfully challenged a U.S. Air Force contract for military space launch — before a contract has even been issued.

The Government Accountability Office has upheld a challenge by the Jeff Bezos-founded rocket firm against the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch program’s Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which will downselect two firms that will have the right to compete for the next five years of military space launches.

In August, Blue Origin announced it was launching a protest with the GAO over the Air Force’s structure of the contract — before the service had reached a final decision. The Air Force released a solicitation for the second phase of the LSP competition in May and expected to downselect to two launch providers in 2020. Blue Origin is joined by SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman in vying for the series of contracts, which will be awarded during the 2020-2024 time frame for launches scheduled through 2027.

In a statement, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith thanked the GAO for “their careful consideration of these serious issues, thoroughly reviewing the facts of the case, and recognizing the importance of ensuring evaluation criteria that are unambiguous and comply with federal procurement statutes and regulations.”

“This is an important mission to Blue Origin, and we remain committed to our long-term partnership with the Air Force and to working with them as they address the GAO’s recommendations. We look forward to continuing our participation in this process and working with the Air Force as they incorporate the GAO’s feedback during the LSP source selection.”

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement that the service “values GAO’s role in helping ensure the fairness and integrity of the procurement process."

“We are pleased that GAO has validated the Air Force’s fundamental acquisition strategy and source selection approach for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Service Procurement,” Stefanek said. “The Air Force is reviewing the single ground of protest sustained by the GAO and expects to resolve this issue definitively and expeditiously. The Air Force remains confident in its acquisition strategy and Phase 2 contract award in the third quarter of FY20.”

Earlier in the year, Blue Origin raised concerns to Congress that the contract award, currently planned for 2020, should be delayed for up to two years to allow competitors to further mature their designs. For its part, the Air Force argued that the current structure of the launch service provider competition may favor incumbents and will perpetuate a duopoly.

Only the incumbents — United Launch Alliance and SpaceX — have rockets certified by the Air Force for this mission set, Blue Origin argued, putting it and the other new contender, Northrop Grumman, at a disadvantage.

Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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