Hot on the heels of its first crewed flight to suborbital space, Blue Origin reiterated that it wants a NASA moon lander contract — and stressed that it’s willing to put a lot of its own money into the effort.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who was on the suborbital flight of the company’s New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson yesterday (July 26). The missive asked the agency to award another crewed lander contract for its Artemis moon program and stated that Blue Origin is willing to cover up to $2 billion in development and testing costs if it’s selected.
Bezos’ letter, which was posted on the Blue Origin website, comes three months after the Blue Origin-led “National Team” and Dynetics lost out in the final round of the competition to SpaceX, which won a contract valued at $2.9 billion to develop its Starship spacecraft as the Artemis Human Landing System (HLS).
Both Dynetics and Blue Origin filed protests with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in late April, citing what they saw as flaws in the HLS procurement process. As mandated, NASA will keep hold of the $2.9 billion until the GAO finishes an investigation into the matter, projected to be in August.
“Instead of investing in two competing lunar landers as originally intended, the agency chose to confer a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar head start to SpaceX,” Bezos wrote in the letter.
He added that the human landing system the National Team proposed can fly on numerous vehicles, reducing overall risk to the human landing project, and that NASA had cited this as a positive thing.
“Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes and cost overruns,” Bezos wrote of the SpaceX selection.
Bezos also said that the HLS selection process was different from NASA’s lengthy commercial crew spacecraft procurement process, which went through multiple rounds of selection before picking SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in 2014 to eventually fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
“That [HLS] decision broke the mold of NASA’s successful commercial space programs by putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come,” Bezos wrote.
(Crew Dragon flew its first operational crew in 2020 and is now regularly launching astronauts. Starliner is set to launch Friday, July 30, on its second uncrewed test flight to the space station, after failing to meet up with the orbiting lab on its first attempt, in December 2019.)
In his new letter, Bezos further alleged that only SpaceX was invited to send a revised budget, a complaint that has not yet been addressed formally by the GAO. “Blue Origin was not offered the same opportunity. That was a mistake, it was unusual and it was a missed opportunity. But it is not too late to remedy.”
NASA officials have said that they would have liked to select two HLS providers, but Congress hasn’t allocated enough money for them to do so. Bezos, the richest person in the world, offered to help in this regard.
If Blue Origin is awarded a contract, the company will help “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall” by “waiving all payments in the current and next two government fiscal years up to $2B to get the program back on track,” Bezos wrote in the letter. (The fiscal 2021 budget allocated $850 million to HLS, about a quarter of NASA’s $3.3 billion request, while the 2022 budget is still under negotiation in Congress.)
Bezos added that the offer is not a deferral but rather a permanent waiver of the payments, and that Blue Origin is prepared to accept a fixed-price contract for the lander with the company covering the cost of any overruns.
“Blue Origin will, at its own cost, contribute the development and launch of a pathfinder mission to low-Earth orbit of the lunar descent element to further retire development and schedule risks,” he added. “This pathfinder mission is offered in addition to the baseline plan of performing a precursor uncrewed landing mission prior to risking any astronauts to the moon.”
Bezos also noted that a NASA request for information from late April, after the SpaceX contract was awarded, shows that the agency is actually still interested in more options. The request, according to a NASA press release, asks companies about their willingness to consider “providing Artemis astronaut transit services from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon.”
“Unfortunately, this new approach won’t create true competition because it is rushed, it is unfunded and it provides a multi-year head-start to the one funded, single-source supplier,” Bezos wrote.
As of Tuesday morning (July 27), there were no responses yet to the letter on the Twitter accounts of NASA, Nelson or agency deputy administrator Pam Melroy. It’s unlikely that we will see much (or any) public comment until the GAO investigation has wrapped up.
No ‘Bezos bailout’
Shortly after SpaceX won the HLS contract, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, added an amendment to the huge, sprawling Innovation and Competition Act, formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act. The amendment asked for an additional $10 billion for the Artemis Human Landing System, invoking a need for competition.
Cantwell represents Blue Origin’s home state of Washington, which raised a few eyebrows and objections at the time. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) swiftly submitted another amendment in response, with the following stated purpose: “To eliminate the multi-billion-dollar Bezos Bailout.”
That extra money will likely not come NASA’s way; the $10 billion amendment lacks support in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has yet to pass the Innovation and Competition Act.
Adding another layer of complexity to the HLS saga, Bezos and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk have a longstanding rivalry that has at times devolved into name-calling and trolling.
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