WASHINGTON — For the past couple of years, top NASA officials have lobbied Congress to give the space agency enough money so it could land the next astronauts on the moon by 2024. To meet that goal, NASA requested $3.3 billion for this year to develop a spacecraft capable of ferrying the first humans to the lunar surface since the Apollo era.
Instead, despite an intense lobbying campaign led by former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, Congress appropriated $850 million — a sizable amount but a small fraction of what NASA said it needed.
Now, Blue Origin’s 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 only afford to pay for 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, Kent-based Blue Origin protested NASA’s decision, saying NASA “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, a Democrat from Washington, introduced 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 year 2026. It also calls for NASA to pick another second winner for the contract.
Almost as soon as the contract was awarded to SpaceX, Cantwell, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she was concerned about only having a single provider for the program. And during Bill Nelson’s confirmation hearing for the top NASA job 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 said watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon was “a seminal moment.”
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 cross the country,” said Casey Dreier, the 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.”
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 the company “can’t get it up (to orbit).” In a statement to The 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. It 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, received $253 million. SpaceX won the smallest amount, $135 million.
In other major human-spaceflight programs, NASA has chosen multiple providers to foster competition and to ensure that 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 has not flown crew members. 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 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 that 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.