The Senate Just Raised the Dispute Between SpaceX and Blue Origin

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A controversial amendment passed by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin passed the Senate Wednesday night and moved closer to law. Crammed into a mammoth science and technology bill designed primarily to counter competition from China, the amendment would allow NASA to spend up to $10 billion on its controversial Lunar Lander program. Aside from countering China, it also marks the latest development on Bezos’ warpath to counter SpaceX’s competition from Elon Musk.

For Blue Origin, the $10 billion boost is a key weapon in an ongoing rivalry between the country’s two richest people — somehow the company hopes parts of the funding can give it a better chance of competing with SpaceX. It’s just one front in a broad effort to change the outcome of NASA’s turning point Human Landing System competition: The space agency awarded SpaceX, and SpaceX alone, a $2.9 billion contract in April to carry out its first two missions to the moon. to launch by 2024, with two companies expected to be chosen.

NASA says it chose SpaceX because it had the best and most affordable proposal, and nothing but SpaceX because it didn’t have enough money to pick a second company. Last year Congress gave NASA a quarter of what it had asked for to fund two separate lunar landers. Blue Origin and Dynetics, the two losing companies, filed protests with the country’s main watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, leading to a pause in SpaceX’s granting that could last until August 4. Among dozens of counter-arguments, Blue Origin says NASA unfairly gave SpaceX a chance to negotiate its contract that other bidders didn’t get, and wrongly rejected its roughly $6 billion proposal.

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Much is at stake: If the GAO supports Blue Origin’s arguments, it could reset the entire lunar lander competition and push NASA’s goal of putting humans on the moon by 2024, the key deadline in the Artemis program of the desk, slow down. If the GAO rejects the company’s protest, things will go as planned and SpaceX will resume — or begin — its lunar lander work.

But in its bipartisan battle on Capitol Hill and at the GAO, Blue Origin may not want a statement at all about its protest.

Lawyers and lobbyists for Bezos’ company argue that at any time during the GAO’s review of the protest, NASA can simply exercise its ability to take formal “corrective action” on its HLS decision, enter into negotiations with a of the two losing bidders, pick one as a second contractor who would develop its lunar lander alongside SpaceX — without having to reopen the entire competition. If the corrective action plan resolves any of the issues raised in Blue Origin’s protest, GAO lawyers would dismiss the protest. Such settlements are not uncommon – nearly half of all 2,137 bid protests last year were rejected because of an agency taking corrective action.

But it is extremely unlikely that NASA would choose to suddenly reverse its HLS decision through corrective action. Formally responding to Blue Origin’s protest late last month, the agency fiercely defended its award decision in a lengthy rebuttal filed with the GAO, according to people familiar with the process. Agency employees involved in NASA’s efforts are concerned that a reversal could set a bad precedent and are concerned that adding another company could mix up the terms of SpaceX’s current award and potentially create a new legal nightmare.

Senate Commerce Committee Considers Nominees for NASA Administrator and Federal Commerce Commissioner

Then-nominee Bill Nelson speaks at his Senate hearing before taking office as NASA administrator.
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However, some argue that one reason to correct the decision would be if NASA had some assurance that it would have enough money to pay for a second contractor. That’s where Blue Origin’s massive lobbying effort comes into play.

Senators Maria Cantwell, a senior Democrat from Blue Origin’s home state of Washington, and Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, proposed the amendment passed by the Senate last night. In its original version, it would have vaguely forced NASA to pick at least one more contractor within 30 days of the bill’s enactment and use $10 billion to fund the entire program — SpaceX’s contract and the hypothetical second company’s contract — to be financed until 2026. Cantwell had been annoyed by NASA’s decision to pick one company and write the language to promote commercial competition, assistants say.

A bipartisan chorus of opposition ensued, with Senator Bernie Sanders — one of Washington’s foremost critics of Jeff Bezos and other billionaires — calling it a “multi-billion dollar Bezos bailout” and counter-proposing to scrap the Cantwell-Wicker language entirely. . “I really have a problem with the authorization of $10 billion to someone who is, among other things, the richest person in this country,” said Sanders, who voted against the bill last night, earlier this month. “Cry me a river,” Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said in a… tweet at the protest of Blue Origin. “Jeff Bezos lost a space contract, so now the Senate is adding a $10 billion bailout from Bezos for his space company?”

The “Bezos Bailout” discourse began when SpaceX lobbyists circulated a lobbying memo to lawmakers last month calling the Cantwell-Wicker amendment “a $10 billion payout to a single source” that “destroys NASA’s Artemis program over years.” will throw lawsuits”.

“THIS CHANGE IS NOT ABOUT COMPETITION. THIS IS A HANDOUT, “the SpaceX memo, a copy of which was shared with” The edge and first reported by The Washington Post, screams in capital letters. It adds, “Blue Origin has received more than $778 million from NASA, the Air Force and the Space Forces since 2011, and it has not produced a single rocket or spacecraft capable of orbiting Earth.”

The amendment doesn’t explicitly order NASA to add another lunar lander contractor to work alongside SpaceX, or even choose Blue Origin — parts of the $10 billion could very well go to SpaceX in the future. But the 30-day deadline was seen as a de facto mandate to do so, as it would be unlikely to create a new development program in that narrow window, and because Blue Origin’s lander proposal came second behind that. from SpaceX. After weeks of negotiations between NASA and Congress, the 30-day term of the amendment was extended to 60 days, and the funding year ends at 2025 instead of 2026, according to the version of the bill passed, setting a concession that was intended to give NASA more flexibility to use the $10 billion under the original plan.

That plan includes future competitions, such as a development program that could give companies some $15 million to mature their lunar lander designs, or a larger competition to provide NASA with routine transportation to the moon. But Blue Origin doesn’t want to wait for those programs to open. It leads a national team of companies that it brought together in 2019 to build a winning proposal for a lunar lander. That team includes Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, two publicly traded space and defense contractors who could decide to disembark and work on their own proposals for follow-up prices, some speculate in the space industry.

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Image: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

However, the Bezos national team is still together. Draper Laboratory, the third company on Blue Origin’s team, won a separate $49 million contract late last month to build electronic software in part to support “NASA’s Artemis mission campaign to not just return to the moon landing.” , but to create a lasting presence in the lunar environment,” said a contract document. It is unclear whether that software will support SpaceX’s lunar lander Starship.

“Draper’s work under this award may include NASA’s human landing system, but we don’t know yet,” Pete Paceley, Draper’s vice president of civil space, told me. The edge, adding that Draper will remain a member of the national team. “If we work on HLS under this contract, it will directly support NASA.”

As for the Blue Origin-backed Cantwell amendment, which survived the Senate, it’s unclear if it will survive the House. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairman of the House committee and the subcommittee that oversees NASA, is against NASA’s general approach to going to the moon. A spokeswoman for Rep. Johnson declined to comment on the fate of the amendment. In an earlier statement regarding NASA’s award to SpaceX, Rep. Johnson said there was still a “clear need for a rebaselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2024.”

No one knows when the House could vote on the amendment, and it’s unclear how much it will change in the process. Other members of Congress have poured their support for NASA’s Moon program. NASA’s new administrator, former Senator Bill Nelson, has stormed Capitol Hill with meetings and public statements since the first week he took office, rallying support for his agency’s Moon program.

“The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which encompasses the NASA authorization law, is an investment in scientific research and technological innovation that will keep the U.S. at the forefront of space and help us on track to make many landings at this time. run the moon. decade,” Nelson said in such a statement late Tuesday, after the Senate passed the science and technology bill crammed into the Cantwell amendment. “I welcome the Senate’s approval of the bill and look forward to working with the House to make it into law.”