Jeff Bezos is offering NASA a discount of at least $2 billion for the agency to give his space company a lucrative human lunar landing system contract that his rival, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, won earlier this year. Bezos’ new offer is the latest in an escalating string of efforts to win the contract for Blue Origin.
In a Monday morning letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos said he’d permanently waive up to $2 billion in contract payments for the first two years 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. On top of that, Blue Origin would self-fund a Blue Moon test launch to low-Earth orbit, a feat likely worth hundreds of millions more. “I believe this mission is important,” Bezos said. “I am honored to offer these contributions and am grateful to be in a financial position to be able to do so.”
The plea comes a week before the watchdog Government Accountability Office is due to rule on a formal protest of NASA’s award to SpaceX that Blue Origin filed this spring. “All NASA needs to do is take advantage of this offer and amend” the contract, Bezos said. A NASA spokesperson said the agency was aware of Bezos’ letter but declined to comment further “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 simple as it may sound, says Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator who oversaw the beginning of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Bezos’ offer is something the agency shouldn’t brush aside, Garver said, but it also might not work out the way Blue Origin wants it to. “I see this as a positive sign overall, but it should not impact the current awards or strategy,” she said.
This all started in April when NASA announced it went with SpaceX’s Starship system to ferry the first US crew of humans to the Moon in nearly a half-century by 2024, shelving proposals from Blue Origin and another bidder, Dynetics. Those companies are still in the running for a future Moon competition that’s still in the works, but NASA claimed its limited funds from Congress only allowed the agency to choose a single contractor: SpaceX.
Eventually bringing on more competing contractors, Garver says, “was always the plan, and it is good to know we will now have one putting their own skin in the game too.” That being said, she thinks it’s unlikely that the new offer will change NASA’s mind about the current award. Agency staff have worried that tweaking NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a lone contract could spawn new legal problems. “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 says.
In his letter, Bezos said the $2 billion offer would “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall” and “get the program back on track right now,” appealing to NASA’s speedy 2024 Moonshot deadline and the agency’s ever-present need for more Artemis funding. Blue Origin’s protest of NASA’s decision halted SpaceX’s $3 billion NASA contract while the GAO adjudicates the facts of the case. The deadline for the GAO’s ruling is August 2nd, or next Monday. That ruling could recommend — but not force — NASA to restart the award program and revise its decision, or dismiss Blue Origin’s protest and resume NASA’s current plan.
Since filing its protest, Blue Origin set off a strategy aimed at convincing NASA to issue a “corrective action” on its HLS decision before the GAO comes out with its ruling. Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith barnstormed the Capitol in May, and the lengthy GAO protest process afforded Blue Origin lobbyists time to push for legislation that’d allow NASA to spend $10 billion more on its HLS program, a portion of which could hypothetically help fund the company’s lunar lander. But both prongs of their strategy might not follow through as planned. The amendment, which passed the Senate and is being debated in the House, was branded by critics as a “Bezos Bailout.” And GAO protests are rarely successful.
Bezos’ $2 billion discount offer is the company’s latest — and arguably its most desperate — effort to give NASA a reason to pick Blue Origin’s Blue Moon proposal. But it isn’t the first personal offer from Bezos. In 2019, on the heels of a flashy reveal of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander in Washington, DC, Bezos met with then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at the agency’s headquarters to offer to pay 30 percent of the cost of Blue Origin’s lunar lander demonstration mission, or roughly $200 million at the time, according to three people familiar with the visit.
Since that reveal in DC, Blue Origin assembled a “National Team” of partners including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Under that partnership, Northrop will build Blue Moon’s transfer element, which helps detach the system from a module orbiting the Moon as it begins its trek to the surface. Blue Origin will manage the portion that puts the astronauts on the Moon. And Lockheed will lead crewed flight training and build Blue Moon’s Ascent Element, the portion of the lander that launches from the lunar surface to a space station orbiting the Moon called Gateway. The Monday letter from Bezos also promises to “shield NASA from partner cost escalation concerns.”
Update July 26th 5:55PM ET: Adds response from a NASA spokesperson declining to comment on Jeff Bezos’ letter to Bill Nelson.