Jeff Bezos offers to shave off $2B for NASA human moon lander contract

GAO decision on Artemis contract days away

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is offering to waive $2 billion in payments if NASA selects his company’s human moon lander for the Artemis program, as he continues to fight the agency’s decision to select SpaceX’s Starship as the vehicle to land humans on the moon.

Blue Origin partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, to develop a lander vehicle known as Blue Moon launching on Blue Origin’s rocket the New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. The four companies formed what they called “The National Team” and submitted their proposal for the Artemis Human Landing System program.

Dynetics, a Leidos company, and SpaceX also submitted proposals. Ultimately, NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship awarding Elon Musk’s company with a $2.9 billion contract in April. Soon after the announcement, both Dynetics and Blue Origin filed a bid protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, arguing NASA made a “high risk” decision selecting only one vehicle to shuttle astronauts to and from the Lunar Gateway to the moon.

The GAO has until Aug. 4 to decide if it will dismiss, deny or sustain the bid protest. If it sustains the protests the GAO agrees with Blue Origin’s argument that NASA unfairly awarded SpaceX the sole human lander contract. Historically, Blue Origin has not been successful when it has gone this route when U.S. government agencies have passed up Bezos’ company for contracts.

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Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon's surface during the Artemis mission. Credits: SpaceX (WKMG 2021)

Ahead of the GAO decision, Bezos and Blue Origin wrote an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson asking him to select an additional lander for the task. Bezos argues selecting only one company will possibly further delay and drive up the cost to return humans to the moon.

“Instead of this single-source approach, NASA should embrace its original strategy of competition,” Bezos wrote. “Competition will prevent any single source from having insurmountable leverage over NASA. Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes, and cost overruns. Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.”

Bezos offered NASA a new deal to consider, including offering to shave $2 billion off its price for the lander. Blue Origin will also cover the cost to further develop the lunar descent element which Bezos says is above and beyond the $1 billion in contributions it already committed to developing the BE-7 lunar lander engine.

The Blue Origin moon lander would have cost $5.99 billion, according to the proposal, compared to SpaceX’s $2.9 billion for Starship.

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper are working together to build a human moon lander system. A mockup of the lander arrived at Johnson Space Center in August 2020. (Image: Blue Origin) (WKMG 2020)

Bezos writes that The National Team is also open to other suggestions and willing to negotiate with NASA. The ball is now in the agency’s court.

“All NASA needs to do is take advantage of this offer and amend the Appendix H contract we hold today,” Bezos wrote.

The human landing system is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program slated to return astronauts to the lunar surface beginning in 2024. The astronaut landing system will have to work with NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the Gateway station orbiting the moon to return humans there in the next few years.