A federal judge delivered a major blow to Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, on Thursday by ruling in favor of NASA in a dispute over who will build the lander intended to take humans back to the moon.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the two wealthiest people on this planet, each want their own companies to be at the center of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon. But NASA only has enough money for one of them, and it went with Musk’s SpaceX. Blue Origin has fought that decision ever since, saying NASA unfairly favored SpaceX, and argued that the space agency would be better served by funding both SpaceX and Blue Origin’s plans to develop vehicles capable of landing on the moon.
But all of Blue Origin’s efforts thus far to overturn NASA’s decision have fallen flat.
The legal dispute had put NASA and SpaceX’s work on the contract for the Human Landing System (HLS), as the program is called, on hold. That work will now resume “as soon as possible,” the space agency said in a statement.
Details about the lawsuit, which was filed in federal claims court in August, have been sparse, as the companies asked the judge to keep much of the proceedings secret. A Thursday filing said lawyers will meet on November 18 so they can come to an agreement on releasing a redacted version of the judge’s opinion.
In a statement, a Blue Origin spokesperson said its lawsuit “highlighted the important safety issues with the Human Landing System procurement process that must still be addressed,” though the company also said it still strongly supports NASA’s plans to go back to the moon.
“Returning astronauts safely to the Moon through NASA’s public-private partnership model requires an unprejudiced procurement process alongside sound policy that incorporates redundant systems and promotes competition,” the statement said. “We look forward to hearing from NASA on next steps in the (Human Landing System) HLS procurement process.”
Bezos also weighed in with a tweet, saying it’s “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”
The companies gave NASA two wildly different proposals for getting boots on the moon. SpaceX plans to use the Starship, a gargantuan rocket and spacecraft system in development that Musk hopes will go on to colonize Mars one day. And Blue Origin gave a more straightforward plan to develop a lunar lander much like those used for the mid-20th century NASA Apollo missions, which remain the only missions that have ever put humans on the moon.
Though Blue Origin did initially receive some development money from NASA, the current drama was kicked off whenCongress allotted NASA about two billion dollars less for HLS than the $3.4 billion it had requested. In April the space agency chose to go with only one contractor, SpaceX, for HLS.
SpaceX’s bid was by far the cheapest at $3 billion. Blue Origin’s offer came in at $6 billion.
NASA has repeatedly said cost was a large motivating factor in its decision to choose SpaceX as the sole awardee for the HLS program.
Blue Origin first attempted to fight the decision with the Government Accountability Office but was shot down in July.
That happened despite an attempt by Bezos to personally intervene by sending an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in which he pledged to waive $2 billion of development costs if doing so would get Blue Origin’s hat back in the ring.
“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,” Bezos’ lettter reads. “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.”
But Nelson was apparently unswayed, and then Blue Origin escalated the standoff again by filing the lawsuit in federal claims court about two months ago.
Meanwhile, the PR offensives began. Blue Origin put out an infographic on social media that attempted to paint SpaceX’s plans — which involve using multiple launches to get Starship vehicles and tankers full of fuel into orbit — as outlandish, straying too far from technology that has already been proven. “Immensely complex and high risk,” the infographic’s headline blared.
Musk personally shot back on Twitter, posting that if “lobbying & lawyers could get u to orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto [right now.]”
SpaceX did not return a request for comment, however Musk posted a meme on Twitter featuring Sylvester Stallone’s “Judge Dredd”character from the 1995 action film Judge Dredd, declaring “you have been judged.”
More recently, the United States Senate has indicated it wants NASA to expand the HLS program to include two contractors.
NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that matter. But in its statement Thursday, the space agency indicated that it’s sticking with its plans to work solely with SpaceX for now, though Blue Origin may have a chance to compete for future contracts to build an astronaut-worthy lunar lander.
“There will be forthcoming opportunities for companies to partner with NASA in establishing a long-term human presence at the Moon,” the statement said, “including a call in 2022 to U.S. industry for recurring crewed lunar landing services.”