Jeff Bezos is proposing NASA a $2 billion discount in exchange for awarding his space business the lucrative human lunar landing system contract that Elon Musk’s SpaceX won earlier this year. Bezos’ current offer is the latest in a long line of bids to get the contract for Blue Origin.
Bezos said in a Monday morning letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson that if NASA adds Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander to a key phase of the agency’s Human Landing System program, which calls for landing the first humans on the lunar surface in decades, he’ll permanently waive up to $2 billion in contract payments for the first two years.
Furthermore, Blue Origin would self-fund a Blue Moon test flight to low-Earth orbit, an accomplishment that is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars more. “I believe this mission is important,” Bezos stated. “I am honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to be able to do so.”
The proposal comes just a week before the Government Accountability Office is set to rule on Blue Origin’s official complaint to NASA’s award to SpaceX, which it submitted this spring. Bezos stated that “All NASA needs to do is take advantage of this offer and amend” the contract.
The agency was aware of Bezos’ letter, according to a NASA spokesman, but declined to comment more “in order to maintain the integrity of the ongoing procurement process and GAO’s adjudication of this matter.”
Amending the contract to take advantage of Bezos’ offer isn’t as straightforward as it seems, according to Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator who managed the launch of the Commercial Crew Program. According to Garver, the agency should not dismiss Bezos’ offer, but it may not pan out the way Blue Origin expects. “I see this as a positive sign overall, but it should not impact the current awards or strategy,” she said.
NASA revealed in April that it has chosen SpaceX’s Starship system to transport the first US people to the Moon in almost half a century by 2024, rejecting bids from Blue Origin and another bidder, Dynetics.
Those companies are still in the running for a future Moon competition, but NASA claims that the agency’s restricted funding from Congress only enabled them to pick one contractor: SpaceX.
“Bringing on more competing contractors was always the plan,” Garver says, “and it’s good to know we’ll now have one putting their own skin in the game as well.” Nonetheless, she believes it is unlikely that the new offer will persuade NASA to change its mind about the current award.
NASA employees are concerned that changing the agency’s decision to award SpaceX a lone contract could result in new legal issues. “NASA can’t just ‘take offers’ because funding is offered. There’s absolutely nothing to stop Blue from moving forward with their own money to get in a better position to win something in the next round,” Garver explains.
Bezos said in his letter that the $2 billion gift would “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall” and “get the program back on track right now,” citing NASA’s looming 2024 Moonshot deadline and the agency’s ongoing need for Artemis money.
SpaceX’s $3 billion NASA contract has been stopped while the GAO adjudicates the facts of the matter, thanks to Blue Origin’s objection of NASA’s decision. The GAO’s decision is due on August 2nd, which is next Monday. That conclusion might either recommend — but not require — that NASA reopen the award program and amend its decision, or dismiss Blue Origin’s objection and continue with NASA’s present strategy.
Since submitting its complaint, Blue Origin has been pursuing a strategy to persuade NASA to issue a “corrective action” on its HLS decision before the GAO issues its conclusion. In May, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith paid a visit to the Capitol, and the lengthy GAO protest process gave Blue Origin lobbyists time to push for legislation that would allow NASA to spend $10 billion more on the HLS program, with a portion of that money potentially going toward the company’s lunar lander.
However, both prongs of their method may not work out as intended. The amendment, which passed the Senate and is currently being considered in the House, has been dubbed the “Bezos Bailout” by detractors. Protests against the GAO are rarely successful.
Bezos’ $2 billion pledge is the company’s latest — and possibly most desperate — attempt to persuade NASA to choose Blue Origin’s Blue Moon concept. But this isn’t Bezos’ first personal offer.
According to three people familiar with the meeting, Bezos met with then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at the agency’s headquarters in 2019 after a flashy unveiling of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander in Washington, DC, to offer to pay 30% of the cost of Blue Origin’s lunar lander demonstration mission, or roughly $200 million at the time.
Since that announcement in Washington, DC, Blue Origin has formed a “National Team” of partners, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Northrop will construct Blue Moon’s transfer element, which will assist in detaching the system from a module circling the Moon as it begins its journey to the surface.
Blue Origin will be in charge of getting the astronauts to the Moon. Lockheed will also oversee crewed flight training and construct Blue Moon’s Ascent Element, the part of the lander that launches from the lunar surface to the Gateway space station orbiting the Moon. Bezos’ letter on Monday also promised to “shield NASA from partner cost escalation concerns.”