Jeff Bezos offers to cover $2B more in costs as part of NASA lunar lander deal

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Blue Origin team's lunar landing system
An artist’s conception shows the lunar landing system designed by Blue Origin and its partners. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

In an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture will waive up to $2 billion in payments as part of a deal to build a second lunar landing system for NASA’s use.

The offer comes just days after Bezos rode Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship to the edge of space and back. It appears aimed at addressing one of the factors that led NASA in April to issue only one contract for a landing system capable of carrying astronauts to the moon’s surface by as early as 2024. That $2.9 billion contract went to SpaceX, in part because NASA said Congress didn’t award enough money for two providers.

NASA also gave its highest technical rating to SpaceX’s proposal to use a version of its Starship launch system, which is currently under development.

Blue Origin and its industry partners ⁠— including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper ⁠— bid $6 billion to design and build a competing landing system. After SpaceX won the award, Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics, the third competitor for a NASA contract, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office. The GAO is due to rule on those protests by Aug. 4.

In his letter to Nelson, Bezos revisits the issues laid out in Blue Origin’s protest and complains that NASA “chose to confer a multi-year, multibillion-dollar head start to SpaceX” in the Human Landing System competition.

He noted that NASA gave SpaceX a chance to revise its bid to fit NASA’s financial needs, and that Blue Origin wasn’t given a similar opportunity.

“That was a mistake, it was unusual, and it was a missed opportunity,” Bezos wrote. “But it is not too late to remedy.”

Bezos then offered to waive all payments in the 2021-2023 fiscal years, up to $2 billion, “to get the program back on track right now.” He said that would be in addition to the $1 billion in corporate contributions that was previously pledged.

Blue Origin would also develop and launch a pathfinder version of its lunar descent element into low Earth orbit at its own cost, “to further retire development and schedule risks,” Bezos said. And it would do the work on a fixed-price basis, shielding NASA from cost overruns.

In an indirect reference to his status as the world’s richest individual, Bezos said he was “honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to do so.” (For what it’s worth, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is currently the world’s second-richest individual.)

“If NASA has different ideas about what would best facilitate getting back to true competition now, we are ready and willing to discuss them,” Bezos wrote.

He noted there was “strong, bipartisan congressional support for a second lander and for the Artemis Program in general.” Artemis is NASA’s program aimed at getting astronauts on the moon by 2024, although that deadline’s likely to be extended.

Previously: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture approaches period of maximum dynamic pressure

Some prominent members in Congress — including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — have said a second commercial system for crewed lunar landings is needed to ensure competition and redundancy.

NASA has benefited from similar redundancies in the International Space Station program: SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide cargo resupply, while SpaceX and Boeing have contracts for transporting crew.

Congress is considering Cantwell’s proposal to authorize $10 billion for NASA’s Human Landing System program, in order to cover the cost of a second lander.

In part to address congressional concerns, NASA has laid out plans to follow up on SpaceX’s sole-source contract for the first lunar landing with a new competition. That process would start out with a solicitation called Appendix N and continue with a program known as Lunar Exploration Transportation Services, or LETS.

In his letter, Bezos said that approach “won’t create true competition, it is unfunded, and it provides a multi-year head start to the one funded, single-source supplier.”

We’ve reached out to NASA and SpaceX for comment, and will update this report with any response.

In a tweet, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said she was “rarely speechless, but I’m blown away by this offer.”

“I don’t know about its legality, but offering $2B+ to develop a competitive lander can’t be ignored,” Garver wrote. “Sure, it is unconventional, but hasn’t everyone (including Elon) been saying Jeff needs to take more of a personal interest?”

Garver said Blue Origin’s offer should apply to a follow-up competition like LETS — and advised against reopening the original selection process in which SpaceX won out. “If Congress tried, it would overturn procurement laws and set a precedent that all ‘losers’ could derail awards by making a better offer after the fact,” she tweeted. “What I like is the long-term potential for another competitor … like Boeing in [NASA’s commercial crew program].”

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