Jeff Bezos is pulling out all the stops in an effort to keep Blue Origin’s lunar ambitions alive, by offering to remove NASA’s budgetary concerns.
In April this year, the US space agency decided to award Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build the Artemis lunar lander to carry humans to the moon, as early as 2024.
The American space agency had intended to have at least two private-sector companies compete to build the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts and equipment to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis moon landing missions.
NASA’s announcement in early that it would move forward with SpaceX as the sole contractor for the project surprised some, but the space agency cited costs as a primary reason for the decision, namely its own funding shortfalls, and SpaceX’s proven record of orbital missions.
The space agency had received only $850m of the $3.3bn it had requested from the US Congress to build the Moon lander.
NASA’s decision to award the contract to SpaceX also triggered a formal protest from Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, filed with the Government Accountability Office.
Blue Origin argue that NASA hadn’t properly evaluated their bids.
The Government Accountability Office will rule on 4 August 2021 on whether the protests have merit, but industry sources reportedly said Blue Origin views the possibility of a reversal as unlikely.
Blue Origin had partnered with frequent government contractors Northrop Grumman, Draper and Lockheed Martin (called the National Team) to design a lunar lander specifically to service the space station, called Gateway, as part of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program.
SpaceX has its Starship vehicle, which is designed to eventually take mankind to Mars. A modified version of the spacecraft will service NASA’s Artemis moon program.
“Our approach is designed to be sustainable for repeated lunar missions and, above all, to keep our astronauts safe,” Bezos wrote. “We created a 21st-century lunar landing system inspired by the well-characterised Apollo architecture – an architecture with many benefits. One of its important benefits is that it prioritises safety.”
“From the beginning, we designed our system to be capable of flying on multiple launch vehicles, including Falcon Heavy, SLS, Vulcan, and New Glenn,” he added. “The value of being able to fly on many different launch vehicles cannot be over-stated.”
“Yet, in spite of these benefits and at the last minute, the Source Selection Official veered from the Agency’s oft-stated procurement strategy,” he wrote. “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.”
“That decision broke the mold of NASA’s successful commercial space programs by putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come,” Bezos stated. “It also eliminated the benefits of utilizing the broad and capable supply base of the National Team (as opposed to funding the vertically-integrated SpaceX approach) and locks every trip to the Moon into 10+ Super Heavy/Starship launches just to get a single lander to the surface.”
“In April (prior to your confirmation as NASA administrator), only one HLS bidder, SpaceX, was offered the opportunity to revise their price and funding profile, leading to their selection,” Bezos wrote. “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.”
“We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path,” said Bezos. “Our Appendix H HLS contract is still open and can be amended.”
Bezos wrote that “Blue Origin will 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 right now.”
“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,” Bezos 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.”
“Finally, Blue Origin will accept a firm, fixed-priced contract for this work, cover any system development cost overruns, and shield NASA from partner cost escalation concerns,” he added.
The National Team stands ready,” Bezos wrote. “All NASA needs to do is take advantage of this offer and amend the Appendix H contract we hold today.”
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