Instead, despite an intense lobbying campaign led by former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, Congress appropriated $850 million — a sizable amount but only a fraction of what NASA said it needed.
Now, it seems Jeff Bezos may be having more luck pulling money out of Congress for NASA’s moon mission than the space agency itself has had.
With the limited funding, NASA said it could afford to pay for only a single company to build its lunar lander and last month it awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX the contract. As a result, Bezos’s space venture, Blue Origin, lost out after bidding $6 billion, or twice what SpaceX had said it would charge. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Along with Dynetics, the defense contractor that also lost out on the contract, Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision, saying the space agency “executed a flawed acquisition.” It also took to Capitol Hill, lobbying its allies in Congress to force NASA to come up with the additional money and make a second award.
On Wednesday, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington state, where Blue Origin is headquartered, came through, introducing legislation that calls for NASA to do just that. The legislation, which passed as an amendment to another bill, would authorize but not appropriate an additional $10 billion to the Artemis program through fiscal 2026. It also calls for NASA to pick a second winner for the contract.
“We’re pleased that the Senate Commerce Committee recognized the importance of competition in NASA’s Human Landing System program," Blue Origin said in a statement. “Continued competition will safeguard America’s space industrial base and get America back to the Moon as quickly as possible.”
Almost as soon as the contract was awarded to SpaceX, Cantwell, the chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she was concerned about having only a single provider for the program. During Bill Nelson’s confirmation hearing to become NASA administrator last month, she pressed Nelson to “commit to rapidly providing Congress with a plan for assuring that kind of resiliency out of the human lander program.” She added, “I have to say I was surprised last week about the human landing system development contract.”
Her legislation would still need to pass the full Senate and the House, and the money would still need to be approved by appropriators. But it represents an important first step and shows Bezos’s influence in Washington.
Returning to the moon is a lifelong dream of his. Bezos has called watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon “a seminal moment” for him. Blue Origin first pitched NASA on a lunar lander in 2017, long before NASA opened an official competition for the program. Losing out on the contract was a huge blow for Bezos and Blue Origin, which vowed to fight back.
In the protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office, the company said that NASA failed to allow the competitors “to meaningfully compete for an award when the Agency’s requirements changed due to its undisclosed, perceived shortfall of funding for the multi-year program lifecycle.” It also alleged that NASA “changed the weight accorded to evaluation factors to make price (cost to the Government) the most important factor because of perceived funding limitations.”
For its bid, Blue Origin had formed what it called the “national team,” partnering with aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Teaming up with such aerospace heavyweights gives Blue Origin political heft and lobbying strength. The team is a “mix of new and established aerospace companies spread out all across the country,” said Casey Dreier, senior space adviser at the Planetary Society, which lobbies on behalf of human space exploration. “I don’t think we should discount the fact that Lockheed Martin is on the team, as well.”
NASA declined to comment, and SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Earlier, Musk pointed out on Twitter that Blue Origin had yet to launch a rocket to orbit and said that the company “can’t get it up (to orbit).” Later in a statement to The Washington Post he said, using Blue Origin’s initials: “The BO bid was just way too high. Double that of SpaceX and SpaceX has much more hardware progress.” He added that Bezos, who is set to step down as chief executive of Amazon this year, should be more involved in Blue Origin. “I think he needs to run BO full-time for it to be successful. Frankly, I hope he does.”
Having two winners had been NASA’s intent from the start. NASA had chosen all three companies, Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX, for the initial phase of the contract and was expected to choose two of them to build the lunar lander. In the initial round, Blue Origin won the biggest award: $579 million. Dynetics, which had partnered with Sierra Nevada Corp., received $253 million. SpaceX won the smallest amount, just $135 million.
In other major human spaceflight programs, NASA has chosen multiple providers to foster competition and ensure it has redundancy in case one company falters. NASA chose two companies for its “commercial crew” program, SpaceX and Boeing, to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station. Many initially thought Boeing would fly first. But it ran into technical problems with its Starliner spacecraft and still hasn’t flown crew. SpaceX, by contrast, flew its first mission with astronauts last year and has flown two more since.
NASA has said that SpaceX’s contract is only for the first mission with astronauts to the moon and that it would set up a competition for additional flights there. That is something Nelson, who was sworn in as NASA administrator last week, has said he would make a top priority.
“What I have to do is to try to get the Congress to come up with the funds so that you can have a vigorous competition for all the other flights,” he said in an interview Monday.
Alan Chvotkin, a partner at Nichols Liu, a law firm that deals with government contracting, said NASA could easily add another winner to the program, noting the procurement was set up from the beginning to have more than one award.
“This would not be the first time Congress has engaged in trying to structure a procurement without picking a winner,” he said. “Awarding to one doesn’t foreclose awarding to a second.”
The protest before the GAO, however, could upend the acquisition if it rules that NASA made a significant error during the procurement. But protests do not have a high success rate.