Jeff Bezos Instigates Potentially Crushing Delay of NASA Lunar Lander

Jeff Bezos Instigates Potentially Crushing Delay of NASA Lunar Lander
Jeff Bezos in front of a mock-up of Blue Origin's lunar lander, May 9, 2019. (Image: Patrick Semansky, AP)

NASA has agreed to put its SpaceX lunar lander contract on hold for a second time as it deals with a Blue Origin lawsuit. Work on the Artemis lunar lander may not recommence until November, putting NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024 in even greater jeopardy.

When Blue Origin filed its suit with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims late last week, I raised the concern that the move would cause further delays in the development of NASA’s lunar lander. Turns out that concern was warranted.

“NASA has voluntarily paused work with SpaceX for the human landing system (HLS) Option A contract effective August 19 through November 1,” according to an emailed NASA statement.

Ouch. That’s a delay of at least 10 weeks — 10 precious weeks in which NASA and SpaceX were supposed to hammer away at a lander to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface in late 2024.

In exchange for this temporary pause, “all parties agreed to an expedited litigation schedule that concludes on November 1,” NASA said, adding that space agency officials will continue to work with the Department of Justice to “review the details of the case and look forward to a timely resolution of this matter.” As Reuters reports, oral arguments for the case will be heard on October 14.

Speaking to SpaceNews, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the matter is “out of our hands” as the case is being handled by the Department of Justice. Nelson worries that the lawsuit will “further delay” the Artemis program and that the judge in the case might demand a “very laborious discovery.”

This latest delay in the project comes three weeks after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a protest filed by Blue Origin. The Jeff Bezos-led company had argued that the bidding process was unfair and that NASA was supposed to award multiple contracts for the lander. The GAO decision allowed NASA and SpaceX to finally get cracking on the $US2.89 ($4) billion contract, but that obviously didn’t last long.

Blue Origin infographic demeaning the SpaceX solution to a lunar lander. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took issue with this infographic, saying eight and possibly as few as four launches would be required, not the 16 claimed here. (Image: Blue Origin) Blue Origin infographic demeaning the SpaceX solution to a lunar lander. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took issue with this infographic, saying eight and possibly as few as four launches would be required, not the 16 claimed here. (Image: Blue Origin)

NASA’s decision to award a single contract hasn’t gone over well with Bezos. In addition to filing a protest with the GAO, Blue Origin has lobbied Congress, offered a $US2 ($3) billion discount off its $US5.99 ($8) billion quote to build a lunar lander, produced infographics criticising the SpaceX lunar lander design, and, now, filed a lawsuit against NASA. The suit is an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” a Blue Origin spokesperson said in an email.

That the lawsuit might delay the Artemis mission could be a deliberate strategy. Bezos is on the record saying protests during the procurement process “slows things down.”

SpaceX, as Reuters reports, has intervened in the lawsuit. The Elon Musk-led company is seeking to ensure that the court “has a complete and accurate picture of the facts and circumstances surrounding this protest, including the substantial harm that SpaceX will suffer if the court grants the relief sought” by Blue Origin.

In its statement, NASA said it remains “committed to Artemis and to maintaining the nation’s global leadership in space exploration.” The space agency, along with its partners, “will go to the Moon and stay to enable science investigations, develop new technology, and create high paying jobs for the greater good and in preparation to send astronauts to Mars,” NASA said.

That’s all fine and well, but a crewed Moon landing in 2024 has never looked more unlikely than it does today. In addition to not having a viable lunar lander (at least not for the foreseeable future), NASA won’t have its next-gen spacesuits ready until April 2025, and it still needs to get its Space Launch System (SLS) off the ground.