NASA’s decision to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to develop the spacecraft that will land the next astronauts on the moon is being contested by Blue Origin. The step adds to a years-long rivalry between the world’s two richest men, Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, and Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX.
The conflict revolves around NASA’s Human Landing System, or HLS, program, which sought to have at least two private-sector companies bid to develop the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for the agency’s Artemis moon landing missions. However, NASA made the surprising announcement earlier this month that it would proceed with SpaceX as the project’s sole contractor, citing cost as a major factor in the decision.
In an interview with The New York Times this week, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said NASA’s decision was flawed because it misjudged the benefits of Blue Origin’s plan while downplaying technological problems in SpaceX’s.
“Can’t get it up (to orbit),” he wrote. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment, but Musk followed up his tweet with another referring to Blue Origin’s proposed lunar lander design, which was called “Blue Moon,” as “Blue Balls.”
A third company bidding for the HLS contracts, Alabama-based Dynetics, joined Blue Origin in protesting NASA’s decision.
Blue Origin and Dynetics also complained to the Government Accountability Office this week, claiming that NASA had failed to adequately review their bids and urging the space agency to reconsider. The government has 100 days to decide if the demonstrations are valid, or until August 4, 2021.
Pushback against such contracting decisions is popular, especially in the aerospace industry, where rocket builders’ primary customers are NASA and the US military, and winning or losing awards can have a significant effect on a company’s bottom line.
But Blue Origin and SpaceX’s Musk have been particularly vocal about their rivalry.
“In NASA’s own words, it has made a ‘high risk’ selection,” Blue Origin said in a statement. “Their decision eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the Moon. Because of that, we’ve filed a protest with the GAO.”
Blue Origin suggested forming a “National Team” for the HLS program, which would include regular government contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, to build a lunar lander specifically for servicing NASA’s planned space station, Gateway, in orbit around the moon. Dynetics made a similar suggestion.
SpaceX, on the other hand, suggested using its Starship, a massive spaceship and rocket system currently under construction in South Texas. While the primary purpose of SpaceX’s Starship is to transport humans to Mars, the company has suggested that a modified version be used to support NASA’s Artemis moon program.
While the vehicle would potentially be capable of transporting astronauts directly from Earth to the lunar surface, NASA intends to use it in conjunction with its own rocket and spacecraft, the SLS and Orion.
During a press conference earlier this month, NASA officials stated that the current plan is for SLS to bring astronauts to the moon’s orbit, then the crew will travel to the Gateway space station, and then SpaceX’s Starship will transport the astronauts to the moon’s surface.