Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space company on Monday pressed its campaign to win a slice of NASA’s lucrative lunar lander contract, filing a suit in federal court in an attempt to force NASA to fund a second spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
The suit, filed in the Court of Federal Claims, comes about two weeks after the Government Accountability Office rebuffed Blue Origin’s protest of the NASA decision to award the $2.9 billion contract to develop the so-called Human Landing System solely to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The suit filed Monday was under seal. But in a statement, Blue Origin said it was “an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System. We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.”
The contract is one of the most significant NASA programs in some time and has been a target for Blue Origin for years. In 2017, before there was even a formal request for proposals, the company pitched NASA on a lunar lander for cargo. At the time, Bezos told The Post that he would invest a significant amount of his personal fortune to fund the spacecraft.
Blue Origin subsequently teamed up with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, bulwarks of the American defense system, to bid for the program. And last year NASA awarded the Blue Origin-led team the biggest award in the initial phase of contracts. Blue Origin won $579 million; Dynetics, an Alabama-based defense contractor, was awarded $253 million; SpaceX received $135 million.
But in April, NASA selected a single winner, SpaceX, to develop the spacecraft for what would be the first human landing on the moon since the last Apollo mission, in 1972. Given the funding for the initial round, the award was considered a major upset.
It was also a surprise, since NASA had said it wanted to fund two companies’ spacecraft. But it said it did not have enough money to pay for two lunar lander programs, and GAO ruled it was justified in offering the single contract. NASA has maintained that it would open competition for future moon landings.
SpaceX has proved itself to be one of NASA’s most trusted partners, flying three crews of astronauts to the International Space Station, for example, when the other participant in that program, Boeing, has stumbled badly. And its bid for the lunar landing contract was half Blue Origin’s $6 billion offering.
Since then, Blue Origin has tried every lever at its disposal — lobbying Congress, filing the suits and waging a public relations war — to overturn the SpaceX award. Blue Origin has claimed that SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft that would become the lunar lander is an “immensely complex and high risk” path for NASA to take since it would involve as many as 16 flights to fully fuel the spacecraft for a lunar landing.
Many in the space community have bristled at that bare-knuckles approach, especially since it was aimed at SpaceX, which has won legions of fans for its success in creating a reliable transportation network to space. For years SpaceX has ferried cargo and supplies to the space station, and more recently astronauts. It has moved quickly on Starship’s development, even landing the vehicle on a recent test flight that went some six miles high.
Blue Origin, by contrast, has never flown to orbit, and the engines it is developing for that rocket, known as New Glenn, are behind schedule.
Musk has pushed back against Blue Origin’s claims about Starship’s complexity, writing on Twitter that “16 flights is extremely unlikely.” The maximum he said would be eight flights — and it could be as few as four — to fill the 1,200-ton tanks of the Starship version designed for the moon.
“However, even if it were 16 flights with docking, this is not a problem,” he wrote. “SpaceX did more than 16 orbital flights in first half of 2021 & and has docked with Station (much harder than docking with our won ship) over 20 times.”
He also tweeted an unflattering photo of a mock-up of Blue Origin’s lander being set up at a conference, writing, “Somehow, this wasn’t convincing.”
There is already some concern among members of Congress that NASA is funding companies run by billionaires, and Bezos’ attempt to force more funding for his company is not a good look, said Lori Garver, who served as deputy NASA administrator during the Obama administration.
“In the realm of battling billionaires in space, nobody gets the higher ground by fighting,” she said. “It causes a negative backlash that we need to move beyond.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, where Blue Origin is headquartered, introduced legislation that calls for NASA to fund another lunar lander. But so far Congress has not appropriated any additional funds.
Last month, Bezos wrote an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson that said Blue Origin would make up for the funding shortfall that prevented NASA from awarding two contracts. Bezos offered to waive up to $2 billion in development costs over the next two years “to get the program back on track right now.”
NASA has not responded publicly to the offer, however, and has moved ahead with working with SpaceX on its Starship program, paying it a first installment of $300 million soon after the GAO rendered its decision, which lifted an automatic stay imposed by the protest.
But there is no automatic stay in the Court of Federal Claims, said Alan Chvotkin, a contracts attorney with the firm Nichols Lui. Blue Origin has asked for an injunction to block further NASA spending on the contract, a spokesperson for NASA said. The Justice Department is expected to object on NASA’s behalf.