The next 31 days could arguably be classified as the most crucial month so far in the history of a space company headquartered in Kent, Washington, but which also has employees in regions ranging from Florida and Washington, DC, to Alabama, Texas and California.
The date on the red letter is July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, when Bezos and three teammates are due complete the first crewed flight aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spacecraft in West Texas.
But there are a few other dates that weigh heavily in the Blue Origin timeline: the most important is August 4, the deadline set by the Government Accountability Office to decide whether Blue Origin and its space industry partners should be reconsidered. for a contract for the NASA Artemis moon lander moon exploration program.
In April, the Blue Origin-headed Consortium “National Team” – which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper – lost to SpaceX in a multi-billion dollar competition to work on the first crewed lunar landing, currently scheduled for 2024. Following this loss, the national team and a third finalist, Dynetics, based in Alabama, filed protests claiming that their offers had not been fairly considered.
One of the issues in the dispute concerns NASA’s contact with SpaceX during the review of the bids. In his source selection statement, NASA said it negotiated with SpaceX to match the lower bid to the agency’s budget forecast, but did not contact the other two bidders about their lower-rated proposals. Blue Origin told GAO it should have been given an opportunity to revise its offering.
Blue Origin’s record in such events is mixed: in 2013, it lost to SpaceX in a dispute over access to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In 2019, Blue Origin got support from GAO in a protest against the Air Force’s plan to award national security launch contracts – but ultimately lost to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance anyway.
Laura Seward Forczyk, Space Industry Consultant in Atlanta Astralytic, don’t think GAO is going to upset NASA’s price to SpaceX this time around. âI don’t see the GAO price in favor of Blue Origin and Dynetics,â she said. “I see it’s not going anywhere.”
Congress takes action
On another front, members of Congress, including Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. – are enter into the act. Cantwell led an effort to allocate more than $ 10 billion over the next five years to NASA’s human landing systems. That would be enough to fund SpaceX’s nearly $ 3 billion contract and the National Team’s $ 6 billion bid, plus NASA overhead.
During the Senate confirmation hearing in April for NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Cantwell stressed the importance of having more than one commercial supplier lined up for lunar landings – and underscored the precedent set for transport services to the International Space Station.
Having two vendors available for cargo resupply has helped NASA cope with setbacks in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and split of contracts for crew travel to the space station between SpaceX and Boeing also turned out to be a safe bet.
“NASA has a great tradition of delivering resiliency and business programs by using multiple competitors and maintaining what is called dissimilar redundancy,” Cantwell told Nelson. “So I want to know that you will commit to quickly providing Congress with a plan to ensure that kind of resilience of the human landing program.”
Nelson accepted the engagement. âThe competition is always good,â he said.
The proposed funding increase is currently enshrined in legislation approved by the Senate, but he faces more difficult sleds around the house, where Rep Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is a vocal critic. And even if the money is allowed, it will still have to be allocated in separate legislation. This will not happen until the GAO rules.
Moving forward with the lunar plans
In the meantime, NASA is launching another program to procure commercial lunar landing services that would follow the first landing of Artemis. The initial solicitation plan, known as Next STEP-2 Annex N, was released last week. It calls for up to $ 45 million per team for the design of landing systems suitable for sustained lunar operations in the mid to late 2020s. Whether NASA accepts optional risk reduction proposals for these future systems , a team’s total support could reach $ 100 million.
Proposals for Schedule N are due August 2, two days before the GAO deadline.
Annex N is only a preliminary step towards what should be a larger Lunar Exploration Transport Services Program, or LETS. “The LETS solicitation is tentatively scheduled for release in 2022 and will ultimately establish a routine cadence of human transport to and from the moon’s surface,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt explained in an email. .
Witt pointed out that Annex N and LETS are separate from the contract SpaceX won for the first landing, which is known in NASA parlance as Option A under Annex H. âOption A does foresee no routine / recurring moon landing services, which is the ultimate goal for Artemis, âshe wrote.
NASA is not saying how it would react to GAO’s decision on protesting the offer, or congressional action that would provide more money for a second lunar lander. But so far, the signals suggest that NASA is ready to launch a new selection process for LETS rather than revisiting Option A.
âI feel like this ship has sailed,â Forczyk said.
It’s unclear how much Congress will end up doing to speed up the process. Senate legislation gives NASA 60 days to choose a second team to develop a moon landing system, but as deliberations continue, space officials will likely plead their case for one. Longer-term LETS.
Keep the team together
Blue Origin and its industry partners, meanwhile, should advocate to receive NASA support faster, in part to keep their team together and on track.
According to some accounts, 800 workers spread across the national team focused on the Human Landing System project. After losing the NASA contract, some of these engineers were reportedly reassigned to other projects where they might not be as well suited. An engineer tweeted the news that he was leaving Lockheed Martin’s lunar lander team to join SpaceX.
Even though NASA and SpaceX have suspended work on the lunar lander contract due to the protest of the offer, SpaceX continues to work on its Ship launch system, which is due to perform its first orbital test this summer and would be suitable for lunar travel. (We have contacted SpaceX and will update this report with any response.)
A spokesperson for Blue Origin said the national team are ready to move forward and “remain committed to our collective pursuit. be NASA’s partner for the return of astronauts to the moon.
Dynetics also remains committed to building a human landing system for NASA. âDynetics continued at our own expense, albeit at a slower pace with a reduced workforce,â said company spokesperson Kristina Hendrix. âWe are preparing for the next HLS related contract opportunities, whatever they may be. “
Beyond the moon
Lunar missions are high on Jeff Bezos’ agenda for Blue Origin. âWhat I really hope is that we will continue to return to the moon, this time to stay, because it is actually the fastest way to get to Mars,â he added. he said in 2019.
But the moon isn’t the only challenge Bezos and Blue Origin face. There have been persistent questions about delivery delays Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and his orbital class New Glenn rocket.
Even New Shepard’s suborbital launch program, which is set to gain attention this month thanks to Bezos’ space travel, has been somewhat overshadowed by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s decision to make his own suborbital space travel a week earlier.
In the past, Bezos has played the deliberative role of Blue Origin. The company’s mascot is a slow and steady turtle, and its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” (Latin for “Step by step, ferociously”). But Forczyk said Blue Origin needs to take bigger steps.
âFor a very long time they were talking about not wanting to promise too much and not deliver,â she said. “That’s exactly what they’re doing now.”
According to tech journalist Brad Stone’s recent book on Bezos and His Businesses, “Amazon Unbound,” Billionaire’s Frustration at Blue Origin’s Slowness was a factor in the managerial overhaul of the company in 2016-2017. Now, there are similar rumbles – and with Bezos freed from his CEO role at Amazon, many expect him to take a much more active role at Blue Origin.
Even SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bezos’ big rival in the billionaire space race, agrees with this prescription. “I think he has to run BO full time for this to be successful”, he told the Washington Post back in April. “Frankly, I hope he will.”
Considering everything to come for the next month and beyond, going into space may be the least of Bezos’ challenges.
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