SpaceX’s NASA Starship contract safe for now as Blue Origin looks to Congress

SpaceX's NASA HLS contract is safe (for now) but major uncertainty still remains. (SpaceX/NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

Fresh off of a major contract loss during a competition to build NASA’s next crewed Moon lander, Blue Origin has begun aggressively lobbying Congress for the contract NASA didn’t give it.

Thankfully, albeit not at first, a modification has been made to an amendment first proposed by a Senator that has long pursued favorable treatment of Blue Origin that will prevent that legislation – if it passes – from unfairly interrupting the $2.9 billion contract NASA already awarded SpaceX. Announced on April 16th, that award came as a shock, effectively cementing SpaceX’s lunar Starship as both the cheapest and most technically sound proposal to return humanity to the Moon.

As such, although NASA made it clear that it would have selected two of the three competing proposals in a perfect scenario, Congress allocated just a quarter of the Human Landing System (HLS) funding NASA requested, forcing the agency between a rock and a hard place.

NASA repeatedly stated as much both before and after the decision was announced, effectively implying that the agency had learned its lesson with the Commercial Crew Program, in which it had selected two redundant providers – Boeing and SpaceX – only for Congress to systematically underfund the program for years. As a direct result of years of underfunding during an early and formative period, both providers suffered at least 2-3 years of delays, followed by another few years of more organic delays as development matured and new challenges were unsurprisingly uncovered.

Politically, NASA could never say that – effectively biting the hand that (under)feeds – out loud, but it was strongly implied in an official HLS source selection statement released to partially explain why it had chosen SpaceX and SpaceX alone. Almost instantly, both losing competitors – Blue Origin and Dynetics – filed protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) filled with far more bizarre, rambling tangents than coherent legal arguments.

Unless GAO operates on a different standard than the court of law or uncovers something nefarious behind closed doors, a close reading of both partially redacted protests does not bode well for either document’s ability to sway the office’s opinion. Almost as if Blue Origin itself is aware of just how frivolous its protest really is, the company – seemingly backed by partners Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Leidos – wasted no time lobbying Senator Maria Cantwell for an alternate avenue to get what it wants and the government money founder Jeff Bezos feels entitled to.

Cantwell represents Washington State, where both Amazon and Blue Origin are headquartered, and has frequently spoken out in support of – or personally introduced – legislation that would specifically favor Bezos’ space company. On May 12th, Cantwell introduced an amendment that would purportedly “maintain competitiveness” by forcing NASA to select a second HLS winner in addition to SpaceX. Without irony, the authorization bill also demanded that NASA make that decision within a mere 30 days.

Under those conditions, Congress would authorize $10 billion for NASA to develop and demonstrate two landers with an uncrewed and crewed Moon landing each – the original plan. Insultingly, Cantwell tacked that amendment onto an authorization bill, meaning that even if Congress were to pass the bill and the President were to sign it into law, Congress would still have to actually allocate that $10 billion in the form of a more than 10% boost to NASA’s annual budget. Historically, even if Congress were to defy all recent precedent and significantly boost NASA’s 2022 budget, there is no guarantee that that raise would be upheld for four or more years, which it would need to be for the authorization bill to be anything more than a hollow promise.

More recently, a clause was thankfully added clarifying that NASA is not allowed to “modify, terminate, or rescind” SpaceX’s HLS contract to comply with the amendment. Additionally, while still amounting to a legal gun to NASA’s head to force it to into a contract it knows it cant afford, the modification gives NASA 60 days to award a second lander contract. Based on the agency’s own selection statement, Blue Origin’s National Team would almost certainly be the recipient in the event that the bill becomes law, forcing NASA to commit more than $9 billion – instead of $2.9 billion – to the next stage of HLS development with no guarantee that its budget will be raised accordingly.

In the meantime, GAO still has to complete its reviews of Blue Origin and Dynetic’s protests and the White House has to submit its FY2022 budget request and consider adding NASA funding to its proposed jobs and infrastructure package.

SpaceX’s NASA Starship contract safe for now as Blue Origin looks to Congress
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