In April, NASA took one step closer to the moon, announcing the $2.9 billion Human Landing System contract that delivers American space boots back to the lunar surface in 2024. But the decision leaves some Washington space suppliers’ feet firmly on the ground.
Kent-based Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, has been working directly with more than 20 companies in Washington state in support of its Human Landing System during the program’s “Base Period.” Selection as an HLS provider represented approximately $100 million in near-term contract work with Washington companies, according to the company. Blue Origin’s national team HLS partners Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were also anticipating millions in contract opportunities for their nationwide supply chains.
NASA’s original plan — which was the right approach — was to select multiple vendors on a commercial option to return to the moon. Multiple providers create redundancy in case of technical or schedule issues typical with bold space efforts — especially at a time when other nations are ramping up to land on and develop the moon.
The plan is for astronauts on the Artemis Mission to fly nearly a quarter million miles from the Earth to lunar orbit on the Orion capsule. There they will rendezvous with the waiting three-element Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) being developed by Blue Origin and partners. Blue Origin’s bid, as prime contractor, would develop the Descent Element (the stage that helps to land on the moon’s surface), Lockheed Martin develops the Ascent Element (where the crew lives during the journey to and from the lunar surface) and Northrop Grumman develops the Transfer Element (which moves the entire ILV combination from a high lunar orbit to a low lunar orbit).
Unfortunately, NASA has chosen just one provider — SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk. By selecting a sole provider, NASA is potentially jeopardizing the safety and reliability of the new lunar lander. In April, NASA’s own Office of Inspector General stated that NASA officials have “expressed concern that selecting a single contractor would result in a lack of redundancy and potentially higher, less sustainable future HLS costs due to a lack of competition.”
Selecting only one provider — particularly one that manufactures virtually all its components in-house — also endangers our broad-based nationwide supplier network. It cuts most of the space industrial base out of NASA exploration, impacting jobs, the economy and NASA’s own future supplier options. Importantly, it puts Washington jobs at stake.
We are concerned about this change of approach, which eliminates essential competition and negatively impacts the space industrial base. Our concern is shared by members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who deserves great credit for raising this important question directly with Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and newly appointed NASA administrator, during his nomination hearing. She noted the importance of competition in the program and asked him to review the decision.
We are encouraged by the Senate Commerce Committee’s unanimous vote to mandate a second HLS provider and authorize $10 billion in new funding for the program. This amendment to the Senate version of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act preserves the SpaceX award while providing enough funding for NASA to contract with a second HLS provider.
This is important progress, but Washington suppliers are still far from liftoff. The amendment must also be made to the House version. We are asking Congress and NASA Administrator Nelson to ensure a fully funded second provider for the Human Landing System program.
At a time when space exploration and development are becoming increasingly competitive on a global scale, we should not be putting NASA’s flagship program for returning to the moon at risk or exclude American industry from the opportunity to compete. Washington state suppliers are up to the challenge and deserve the opportunity.