Jeff Bezos unveils a model of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander in 2019 (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
Jeff Bezos may step back from his CEO role at Amazon, but now he needs to feel the heat at Blue Origin, the privately held space company he founded in 2000.
The next 31 days could well be considered the most important month yet in the history of a space company headquartered in Kent, Washington, but also with employees in locations from Florida and Washington, DC to Alabama, Texas and California.
The red date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crew members are scheduled to make the first manned flight aboard Blue Origin’s suborbital spacecraft New Shepard in West Texas.
But there are a few other dates that are very significant on Blue Origin’s timeline: the big one is August 4th, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners are for you Lunar lander contract should be reconsidered by NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program.
In April, the Blue Origin-led “National Team” consortium – which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper – lost to SpaceX Nach in a multi-billion dollar competition to work on the first manned moon landing, which is currently planned for 2024 At that loss, the national team and a third finalist, Alabama-based Dynetics, protested, claiming that their offers had not been considered fairly.
One of the points of contention has to do with NASA’s contacts with SpaceX while reviewing the offers. In its source selection statement, NASA said it had negotiated with SpaceX to match the lowest bid with the agency’s budget projections, but did not contact the other two bidders about their less well-rated proposals. Blue Origin told GAO it should have been given a chance to revise its offering.
Blue Origin’s track record at such protests is mixed: in 2013, it lost SpaceX in a dispute over access to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In 2019, Blue Origin won GAO support in protest against the Air Force’s plan to award launch contracts for national security – but ultimately lost to SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance anyway.
Laura Forczyk, a space industry consultant at Astralytical in Atlanta, doesn’t think GAO will disrupt NASA’s award to SpaceX this time around. “I don’t see the GAO award going down in favor of Blue Origin and Dynetics,” she said. “I see this is going nowhere.”
Congress becomes active
On another front, members of Congress – including Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. – come into action. Cantwell led efforts to allocate more than $ 10 billion to NASA’s human landing systems over the next five years. That would be enough to fund SpaceX’s nearly $ 3 billion deal and the national team’s $ 6 billion offer, as well as NASA’s overheads.
During the Senate hearing to confirm NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in April, Cantwell stressed the importance of having more than one commercial lunar landing provider – and noted the precedent for transportation services to the International Space Station.
The availability of two vendors for post-delivery cargo helped NASA with weather setbacks in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and splitting the contracts for crewed trips to the space station between SpaceX and Boeing also proved to be a prudent bet.
“NASA has a long history of ensuring resilience and commercial programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what is known as unequal redundancy,” Cantwell told Nelson. “So I want to know that you will undertake to quickly provide Congress with a plan to provide this type of resilience to the Human Lander program.”
Nelson agreed to the commitment. “Competition is always good,” he says.
The proposed funding boost is currently enshrined in Senate-approved law, but she’s faced with tougher skates in the House of Representatives, where MP Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. Is a vocal critic. And even if the money were approved, it would still have to be used in a separate law. That won’t happen before GAO rules.
Continue with lunar plans
Meanwhile, NASA is launching another program to procure commercial lunar landing services that would follow the first Artemis landing. The plan for the first call, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix N, was published last week. It plans to award up to $ 45 million per team to develop landing systems suitable for sustained lunar operations in the mid to late 2020s. If NASA accepts optional mitigation proposals for these future systems, a team’s total support could be increased to as much as $ 100 million.
Appendix N proposals are due August 2nd, two days prior to the GAO deadline.
Appendix N is just a first step towards what is likely to be a larger Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program, or LETS. “The LETS request is tentatively planned for publication in 2022 and will ultimately establish a routine process for human transport to and from the lunar surface,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt explained in an email.
Witt emphasized that Appendix N and LETS are different from the contract SpaceX won for the first landing, known in NASA language as Option A under Appendix H. “Option A does not see routine / recurring lunar landing services as the ultimate goal for Artemis,” she wrote.
NASA is not shaking hands on how it would react to the GAO’s decision on the bid protest or to congressional measures that would provide more money for a second lunar lander. So far, however, the signals indicate that NASA is ready to start a new selection process for LETS instead of re-examining Option A.
“I have a feeling this ship sailed,” said Forczyk.
It is not clear how much Congress will end up doing to speed up the process. Senate legislation gives NASA 60 days to select a second team to develop a lunar landing system, but while deliberations continue, space officials are likely to make their case for a longer-term LETS.
Keep the team together
Blue Origin and its industry partners, meanwhile, will likely work to get support from NASA faster, also to keep their team together and on track.
According to some reports, 800 workers distributed across the national team were focused on the Human Landing System project. Following the loss of the NASA contract, some of these engineers are said to have been reassigned to other projects for which they may not be so well suited. An engineer tweeted the news that he is leaving Lockheed Martin’s Moon Lander team to join SpaceX.
Although NASA and SpaceX have suspended work on the lunar landing contract due to the bidding protest, SpaceX is still working on its Starship launch system, which is due for its first orbital test this summer and will be adapted for lunar travel. (We have contacted SpaceX and will update this report with each response.)
A Blue Origin spokesman said the national team was ready to move forward and “remains committed to our common pursuit”. To be a partner of NASA for the return of astronauts to the moon. “
Dynetics continues to be committed to building a human landing system for NASA. “Dynetics was continued at its own expense, albeit more slowly with a reduced workforce,” said company spokeswoman Kristina Hendrix. “We are preparing for the next HLS-related contract options, whatever they may be.”
Beyond the moon
Lunar missions are high on Jeff Bezos’ agenda for Blue Origin. “I really hope we keep going back to the moon, staying this time because that’s actually the fastest way to get to Mars,” he said in 2019.
But the moon isn’t the only challenge facing Bezos and Blue Origin. There have been persistent questions about delays in shipping Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and its New Glenn orbital-class rocket.
Even New Shepard’s suborbital launcher, slated to see the spotlight this month thanks to Bezos’ space voyage, was somewhat overshadowed by Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson’s decision to embark on his own suborbital space voyage a week earlier.
In the past, Bezos has hyped Blue Origin’s superiority. The company’s mascot is a slow turtle and its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” (Latin for “step by step, wild”). But Forczyk said Blue Origin had to take bigger steps.
“For a long time they have been talking about not promising too much and not wanting to undercut,” she said. “That’s exactly what they’re doing now.”
According to tech journalist Brad Stone’s latest book on Bezos and his endeavors, Amazon Unbound, the billionaire’s frustration with Blue Origin’s slow pace was a factor in the company’s overhaul in 2016-2017. Now there are similar rumors – and with Bezos being relieved of his CEO duties at Amazon, many are expecting him to take on a far more active role at Blue Origin.
Even SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bezos’ arch-rival in the billionaires space race, agrees with this recipe. “I think he has to run BO full time to be successful,” he told the Washington Post in April. “Honestly, I hope he does.”
Given everything that’s coming up for the next month and beyond, space flight might be the least of the challenge for Bezos.