Both of the billionaires’ space companies are working to develop lunar landers, vehicles capable of making a gentle touch down on the moon’s rocky surface.
The current drama was kicked off when Congress allotted NASA about two billion dollars less than it requested, and the space agency chose to go with only one contractor for its Human Landing System (HLS) at least for the first moon landing the agency has planned.
Blue Origin has been fighting that decision ever since, creating a public and occasionally petty battle between the companies.
Here’s what went down, why it matters, and what to expect.
The billionaires, Artemis, & HLS
When it came time to bid for the NASA contract, Dynetics put up a $9 billion offer and Blue Origin gave a $6 billion bid, both of which were cast aside in favor of SpaceX’s $3 billion offer. And, citing budget constraints, NASA announced plans to move forward with SpaceX as its sole HLS partner.
But Blue Origin immediately shot back by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog and auditing group, arguing that NASA should’ve revamped the contracting competition after it became clear that it didn’t have enough money to fund multiple contracts. And, the protest alleged, NASA gave unfair leeway and, potentially, preferential treatment to SpaceX.
“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’ lettter reads. “Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.”
A federal judge has an October 12 deadline to give Blue Origin an answer on its last-ditch effort to get back in the HLS program.
So far, NASA has said only that it’s “reviewing details of the case” and will provide an update on the Artemis Program “soon.”
During the Apollo era, Bezos claimed, NASA would hand out contracts without issue. “Today, there would be three protests and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win.”
“It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology,” Bezos said of NASA’s procurement processes. “Which I know for a fact, for all the well-meaning people at NASA, is frustrating.”
Many experts already doubt that NASA can put boots on the moon by its 2024 deadline whether or not Blue Origin’s protest bid is successful. And there may be larger market forces at work that make a single-source contractor for HLS sensible.
Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator and a key figure in the push for commercial contracting methods at NASA, told CNN Business that she doesn’t agree with Blue Origin’s argument that handing a sole-source contract to SpaceX makes the HLS program anti-competitive.
“I’m not sure there will be a market for a lunar lander anytime soon,” Garver said, adding that NASA is the only obvious customer for such missions at the moment. So, the companies don’t even have the lure of a potential commercial market to bolster their competition, she said.
Garver is also confident SpaceX’s Starship can succeed, adding “a lot of people bet against Elon and SpaceX — but they usually don’t win.”
Looking at the big picture, Garver added, the whole Blue Origin vs. SpaceX standoff is a sign of the unusual and exciting times that the space industry is entering.
“You don’t have a customer beyond NASA for this service, but we happen to have two billionaires interested in paying for it. And I wouldn’t have foreseen that, and I count NASA lucky.”