Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture approaches period of maximum dynamic pressure
The next 31 days arguably could rank as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company that’s headquartered in Kent, Wash., but also has employees in locales ranging from Florida and Washington, D.C., to Alabama, Texas and California.
The red-letter date is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three crewmates are scheduled to take the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas.
But there are a couple of other dates that loom large on Blue Origin’s timeline: The big one is Aug. 4, the Government Accountability Office’s deadline for deciding whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered for a lunar lander contract from NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program.
In April, the Blue Origin-led “National Team” consortium — which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — lost out to SpaceX in a multibillion-dollar competition to work on the first crewed lunar landing, currently planned in 2024. After that loss, the National Team and a third finalist, Alabama-based Dynetics, filed protests claiming that their bids didn’t get fair consideration.
One of the issues in the dispute has to do with NASA’s contacts with SpaceX while the bids were being considered. In its source selection statement, NASA said it negotiated with SpaceX to fit the lowest bid to the agency’s budget projections, but didn’t contact the other two bidders about their less highly rated proposals. Blue Origin told the GAO it should have been given a chance to revise its bid.
Blue Origin’s track record in such protests has been mixed: In 2013, it lost out to SpaceX in a dispute over access to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In 2019, Blue Origin won the GAO’s backing in a protest against the Air Force’s plan for awarding national security launch contracts — but ultimately lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance anyway.
Laura Seward Forczyk, a space industry consultant at Atlanta-based Astralytical, doesn’t think the GAO is going to upset NASA’s award to SpaceX this time around. “I don’t see the GAO awarding in favor of Blue Origin and Dynetics,” she said. “I see that going nowhere.”
Congress gets into the act
On a different front, members of Congress — including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — are getting into the act. Cantwell spearheaded an effort to allocate more than $10 billion over the next five years for NASA’s human landing systems. That would be enough to fund SpaceX’s nearly $3 billion contract and the National Team’s $6 billion bid, plus NASA’s overhead.
During April’s Senate confirmation hearing for NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Cantwell stressed the importance of having more than one commercial provider lined up for lunar landings — and pointed to the precedent set for transportation services to the International Space Station.
Having two providers available for cargo resupply helped NASA weather setbacks in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and splitting the contracts for crewed trips to the space station between SpaceX and Boeing also turned out to be a prudent bet.
“NASA has a big tradition of ensuring resiliency and commercial programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what’s called dissimilar redundancy,” Cantwell told Nelson. “So I want to know that you will commit to rapidly providing Congress with a plan for assuring that kind of resiliency out of the human lander program.”
Nelson agreed to the commitment. “Competition is always good,” he said.
The proposed funding boost is currently written into Senate-approved legislation, but it’s facing tougher sledding in the House, where Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is a vocal critic. And even if the money is authorized, it would still have to be appropriated in separate legislation. That won’t get done before the GAO rules.
Moving on with moon plans
In the meantime, NASA is launching another program aimed at procuring commercial lunar landing services that would follow up on the first Artemis landing. The plan for the initial solicitation, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix N, was released last week. It calls for awarding up to $45 million per team for designing landing systems suitable for sustained lunar operations in the mid- to late 2020s. If NASA accepts optional risk reduction proposals for those future systems, a team’s total support could be raised to as high as $100 million.
Proposals for Appendix N are due on Aug. 2, two days before the GAO’s deadline.
Appendix N is just a preliminary step toward what’s expected to be a bigger Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program, or LETS. “The LETS solicitation is tentatively planned for release in 2022 and will ultimately establish a routine cadence of human transportation to and from the moon’s surface,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt explained in an email.
Witt emphasized that Appendix N and LETS are distinct from the contract that SpaceX won for the first landing, which is known in NASA-speak as Option A under Appendix H. “Option A does not provide for routine/recurring moon landing services, which is the ultimate goal for Artemis,” she wrote.
NASA isn’t tipping its hand as to how it would respond to GAO’s ruling on the bid protest, or to congressional action that would provide more money for a second lunar lander. But so far, the signals suggest that NASA is primed to start a new selection process for LETS rather than revisiting Option A.
“I feel like that ship has sailed,” Forczyk said.
It’s not clear how much Congress will end up doing to speed up the process. The Senate legislation gives NASA a 60-day deadline to pick a second team to develop a lunar landing system, but as deliberations continue, space officials are likely to plead their case for a longer-term LETS.
Keeping the team together
Blue Origin and its industry partners, meanwhile, are likely to plead their case for receiving support from NASA more quickly, in part to keep their team together and on track.
By some accounts, 800 workers spread across the National Team were focusing on the Human Landing System project. After losing out on the NASA contract, some of those engineers are said to have been reassigned to other projects they may not be as well suited for. One engineer tweeted the news that he was leaving Lockheed Martin’s lunar lander team to join SpaceX.
Even though NASA and SpaceX have suspended work on the lunar lander contract due to the bid protest, SpaceX is continuing to work on its Starship launch system, which is due for its first orbital test this summer and would be adapted for moon trips. (We’ve reached out to SpaceX and will update this report with any response.)
A Blue Origin spokesperson said that the National Team stands ready to move forward and “remains committed to our collective pursuit to be NASA’s partner for returning astronauts to the moon.”
Dynetics also remains committed to building a human landing system for NASA. “Dynetics has continued at our own expense, albeit at a slower pace with a reduced workforce,” company spokeswoman Kristina Hendrix said. “We’re preparing for the next HLS-related contract opportunities, whatever they may be.”
Beyond the moon
Lunar missions are high on Jeff Bezos’ agenda for Blue Origin. “What I really hope is that we stick with going back to the moon, this time to stay, because that is actually the fastest way to get to Mars,” he said in 2019.
But the moon isn’t the only challenge facing Bezos and Blue Origin. There have been persistent questions about delays in delivering Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.
Even the New Shepard suborbital launch program, which is due to grab the spotlight this month thanks to Bezos’ space trip, has been somewhat overshadowed by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s decision to take his own suborbital space trip a week earlier.
In the past, Bezos has played up Blue Origin’s deliberativeness. The company’s mascot is a slow-and-steady tortoise, and its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” (Latin for “Step by step, ferociously”). But Forczyk said Blue Origin needs to take bigger steps.
“For the longest time, they were talking about how they didn’t want to overpromise and underdeliver,” she said. “That’s exactly what they’re doing now.”
According to tech journalist Brad Stone’s recent book about Bezos and his ventures, “Amazon Unbound,” the billionaire’s frustration with Blue Origin’s slow pace was a factor behind the company’s managerial overhaul in 2016-2017. Now there are similar rumblings — and with Bezos unbound from his CEO duties at Amazon, many expect him to take a far more active role at Blue Origin.
Even SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bezos’ archrival in the billionaire space race, agrees with that prescription. “I think he needs to run BO full time for it to be successful,” he told The Washington Post back in April. “Frankly, I hope he does.”
Considering everything that’s coming up in the next month and beyond, going into space may be the least of Bezos’ challenges.