Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the two richest people on the planet, want to be center stage when the Nasa put astronauts back on the moon. But NASA only has enough money for one of them, and it chose SpaceX, of Musk. This means that the Blue Origin, de Bezos, it’s crazy.
Both billionaires’ space companies are working to develop lunar probes, vehicles capable of gently touching the moon’s rocky surface.
And the companies gave NASA two totally different proposals for putting the boots on the moon. SpaceX plans to use the Starship, a gigantic rocket and spacecraft system currently under development that Musk hopes will one day colonize Mars. Blue Origin gave a more direct plan to develop a lunar module much like those used for NASA’s Apollo missions in the mid-20th century, which remain the only missions that have ever placed humans on the moon.
The current drama started when the Congress allocated NASA about $2 billion less than requested, and the space agency chose to go with just one contractor for its Human Landing System (HLS), at least for the first moon landing the agency planned.
Blue Origin has struggled with that decision ever since, creating a public and occasionally petty battle between the companies. See what happened, the importance and what to expect.
The US approach to exploring outer space is at an inflection point. O Artemis Program, by NASA, aims to put two people on the moon by 2024. The goal is to establish a permanent lunar settlement.
The Artemis project also sets the stage for an example of the current American spirit – pitting the world’s two richest men against each other and discovering what new technologies emerge.
In April, the NASA awarded three contracts for SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, based in Alabama, which intended to kick-start the development of their lunar landings and were worth about $100 million to $600 million each. NASA then planned to select up to two companies to obtain the final contracts.
But despite months of agency lobbying, Congress finally gave NASA less than a billion of the $3.2 billion the agency had requested for HLS development.
When it came time to bid on NASA’s contract, Dynetics made a $9 billion bid and Blue Origin made a $6 billion bid, both of which were put aside in favor of SpaceX’s $3 billion bid. And, citing budget constraints, the NASA announced plans to move forward with SpaceX as your only partner.
But Blue Origin reacted immediately, filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional oversight and audit body, arguing that NASA should have revamped the hiring competition after it became clear it didn’t have enough money to fund multiple contracts. And, the protest claimed, NASA gave SpaceX unfair leeway and possibly preferential treatment.
These protests are far from uncommon in the world of government contracts, and the GAO quickly denied Blue Origin’s claim in July. The agency said NASA did nothing inappropriate during the evaluation of the proposals, and the public records of these procedures reaffirm that the agency found the SpaceX proposal not only cheaper than the other two, but also the most advanced in terms of technology. and the company’s management plans program.
Bezos also intervened personally at one point, sending an open letter to NASA manager Bill Nelson, in which he promised to waive $2 billion of development cost if it would get Blue Origin’s hat back in the ring.
“Without competition, within a short time of the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it tries to negotiate missed deadlines, project changes and budget overruns,” says Bezos’ letter. “Without competition, NASA’s short- and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will cost more, and will not serve the national interest.”
These appeals went unanswered. So Blue Origin escalated the stalemate again this week, filing suit in federal claims court.
Meanwhile, the public relations offensives began. Blue Origin has released an infographic that attempts to paint SpaceX’s plans – which involve using multiple launches to put fuel-filled starship vehicles and tanks into orbit – as something strange, far removed from the technology that has already been proven. “Immensely complex and high risk,” the infographic says.
Musk responded personally on Twitter, posting that if “lobby and lawyers could put it into orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto (now).”
A federal judge has until October 12 to give an answer to Blue Origin about his latest effort to rejoin the HLS program.
So far, NASA has only said that it is “reviewing the details of the case” and will provide an update on the Artemis Program “soon”.
About that, many space enthusiasts criticize Bezos and Blue Origin. Industry watchers and experts warned that an unfounded lawsuit could slow SpaceX and ultimately delay the moon landing.
And, as others have noted, Blue Origin’s protests over this contract run counter to Bezos’ own comments in 2019 about how protests against the contract could harm the space industry.
During the Apollo era, Bezos said, NASA distributed contracts without a hitch. “Today, there would be three protests and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win.”
“It became a bigger bottleneck than technology,” Bezos said about NASA’s acquisition processes. “What I know, in fact, for all the well-meaning people at NASA, is frustrating.”
Many experts already doubt that NASA can put boots on the moon by the 2024 deadline, regardless of whether Blue Origin’s protest is successful or not.. And there may be larger market forces at work that make a single-source contractor for HLS sensible.
Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator and key figure in the agency’s search for commercial contracting methods, told CNN Business that she disagrees with Blue Origin’s argument that delivering a single-source contract to SpaceX makes the anti-competitive HLS program.
“I’m not sure there will be a market for a lunar module anytime soon,” said Garver, adding that NASA is the only obvious customer for such missions at the moment. Therefore, companies do not even have the attraction of a potential commercial market to increase competition, she said.
SpaceX already has at least one customer who has promised to shell out the money to take the Starship on a tour around the moon.
Garver is also confident that SpaceX’s spacecraft can succeed, adding that “a lot of people bet against Elon and SpaceX, but they generally don’t win.”
Looking at the big picture, Garver added that the entire Blue Origin standoff against SpaceX is a sign of the unusual and exciting times the space industry is entering.
“You don’t have a client other than NASA for this service, but we happen to have two billionaires interested in paying for it. And I wouldn’t have foreseen it.”