Jeff Bezos offered NASA up to $2 billion in waived costs in exchange for a lunar lander contract for Blue Origin, the aerospace company Bezos founded and owns, in an open letter addressed to NASA administrator Bill Nelson posted on Monday.
The proposition is Bezos’ latest attempt to secure a Human Landing System (HLS) contract, an award that funds a commercial crewed lunar lander in support of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. Blue Origin’s rival, SpaceX, won the HLS contract in April, and Bezos has been fighting NASA’s decision ever since.
Two weeks after SpaceX was selected to build the Artemis lander, Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that accused NASA of “[moving] the goalposts” in a “flawed acquisition” that “endangers America’s return to the Moon,” according to a company statement. Dynetics, another aerospace company that bid for the HLS contract, also filed a protest with the GAO. SpaceX has been forced to halt development of its “Starship” HLS project until the complaints are resolved.
“NASA is aware of Blue Origin’s open letter addressed to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson regarding the Human Landing System (HLS) selection that the agency announced in April,” said Jena Rowe, a public affairs officer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in an emailed statement to VICE.
“As a result of ongoing litigation related to HLS protests filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), NASA will not provide comment in response to the letter in order to maintain the integrity of the ongoing procurement process and GAO’s adjudication of this matter,” the statement continued. “NASA’s source selection statement for the award is publicly available here.”
Blue Origin did not respond to a request for comment.
NASA had originally planned to award HLS contracts to two companies as a means to foster competition and ensure redundancies in the event that one lander concept failed to meet the Artemis program’s targets. But the agency ultimately opted to award only a single contract, citing budget limitations that made SpaceX’s proposal, which was by far the cheapest, more attractive. SpaceX requested $2.89 billion from NASA to develop Starship HLS, while Blue Origin had requested $5.99 billion for its “Blue Moon” HLS concept.
In his open letter, Bezos offered to solve this budgetary problem by waiving up to $2 billion in development costs for the Blue Moon concept, meaning that Blue Origin would take on those expenses instead of NASA. As a bonus, Bezos said he would fully fund the development and launch of a pathfinder mission for the lunar descent component to low-Earth orbit, in addition to the waived $2 billion.
“Competition will prevent any single source from having insurmountable leverage over NASA,” Bezos said in the letter. “Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes, and cost overruns. Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.”
Bezos has also lobbied Congress to fund a second HLS contract, an idea that has won both legislative support as well as backlash after Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) labeled the proposal a “Bezos Bailout.”
The GAO expects to rule on the protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics by early August.