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Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin will get a second chance to compete in NASA’s moon program

Space agency says it will hold a competition for a second company to develop a spacecraft to land astronauts on the lunar surface; SpaceX won the first round

Jeff Bezos stands with a mock-up of Blue Origin's proposed moon lander. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Jeff Bezos is getting a second chance to build a spacecraft to land NASA astronauts on the moon.

Last year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX upset Bezos’s Blue Origin space venture in the competition to build the first lunar lander since the Apollo program 50 years ago.

After that loss, the company waged an intense but unsuccessful campaign to force NASA to choose a second provider that included an offer from Bezos to cover $2 billion in NASA’s costs on the project. Members of Congress also called on NASA to introduce competition into the program, saying it would drive down costs and give NASA options in case one company falters. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

On Tuesday, NASA announced it was heading in that direction, creating another lunar lander competition that would allow another company to win a contract to develop its lander. Blue Origin, which finished second in the original procurement and has partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, would be considered the favorite. Dynetics, a defense contractor, also bid on the original contract.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson would not say how much money would be dedicated to the program, saying President Biden was set to release his budget next week. But he said he was confident that Congress would be supportive.

NASA initially had planned to award two contracts for the initial mission but awarded only one, to SpaceX, due to funding issues. SpaceX bid $2.9 billion; Blue Origin bid $6 billion.

After it lost the initial lunar landing contract, Blue Origin protested the decision to the Government Accountability Office, alleging the award was flawed by procurement errors. When it lost that fight, it then filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, but it lost there, as well.

Blue Origin also lobbied Congress and had support from its home state senator, Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and others, who urged NASA to fund a second lander. Nelson, who had not yet been sworn in at the time of SpaceX’s contract award, has since said he would find a way to fund a second lunar lander.

“We think, and so does the Congress, that competition leads to better, more reliable outcomes,” Nelson told reporters Tuesday. “It benefits everybody. It benefits NASA. It benefits the American people. … I promised competition. So here it is.”

Under the contract awarded last year, SpaceX is to fly a test of its Starship spacecraft to the moon, then later land astronauts on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA hopes that mission would come in 2025, but a recent government watchdog report cast doubt on that timeline and said it was more likely to come in 2026, given the enormous challenges of getting people to the moon.

The new lunar lander spacecraft should be ready to fly in the 2026-2027 timeline, NASA officials said Tuesday.

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