The new Space Race to return NASA astronauts on the moon has a plot that not even Sci-Fi film producers have thought of – aerospace companies filing federal lawsuits over the opportunity to land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface. NASA selected SpaceX to develop a lunar-optimized Starship Human Landing System (HLS) to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program that aims to create a permanent lunar base. NASA is facing opposition from competitor Blue Origin, which is working alongside ‘The National Team” that includes aerospace companies Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
When The National Team's HLS proposal lost the award Blue Origin proceeded to file multiple protests against NASA claiming the selection process was “unfair” and requested the independent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the case. GAO investigated and rejected the HLS contract protest on July 30, stating that NASA did not break any law for selecting only one company to develop the HLS lunar lander. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos wrote a letter to NASA officials and also escalated the dispute after losing the case with GAO. He filed a federal lawsuit against NASA on August 13 to fight for the HLS contract at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
NASA typically selects two or more companies but had to only select one aerospace company to develop a lunar lander due to budget constraints. They selected the best proposal that was within the budget. SpaceX requested $2.9 billion to develop an lunar-optimized Starship, Blue Origin’s National Team requested $5.9 billion, and Dynetics $9 billion.
On Monday, October 18, the U.S. Senate released a draft plan of the appropriation bill that governs NASA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2022, where the Senate Appropriations Committee states that NASA should select two companies to develop a HLS lunar lander and proposed to give the agency an additional $100 million to fund their second selection. If this amount is approved for next year’s budget, the total funding for the Artemis HLS program would be approximately $1.295 billion, with NASA receiving an overall budget of $24.83 billion for all its operations planned for 2022.
“Using this funding, NASA is expected to ensure redundancy and competition, including robust support for research, development, testing, and evaluation for no fewer than two HLS Teams,” the draft bill says. “The Committee expects real investments in development rather than additional studies.” Senate said that “having at least two teams providing services […] should be the end goal of the current development program.”
It is unclear whether the additional $100 million for the HLS program would be enough to select a second company, unless Blue Origin (or other aerospace company) is willing to sacrifice earnings over the opportunity to land NASA astronauts on the Moon.
The U.S. budget draft plan crafted by the U.S. Senate comes after GAO published a 44-page ‘Agency Report’ NASA wrote to GAO stating that they worry about Blue Origin’s lawsuit significantly delaying the Artemis program. –“[…] All of this once-in-a-generation momentum, can easily be undone by one party—in this case, Blue Origin—who seeks to prioritize its own fortunes over that of NASA, the United States, and every person alive today who dreams to see humans exploring worlds beyond our own,” the agency wrote, “Plainly stated, a protest sustain in the instant dispute runs the high risk of creating not just delays for the Artemis program, but that it will never actually achieve its goal of returning the United States to the Moon. What begins as a mere procurement delay all too easily turns into a lack of political support, a budget siphoned off for other efforts, and ultimately, a shelved mission. GAO should, of course, sustain one or more of Blue Origin’s grounds of protest if they find them to be availing. But NASA merely wishes to impress upon this office just how high the stakes are in the present dispute,” NASA wrote to GAO.
Featured Image Source: NASA