Senators spar over the idea of giving billions to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture for lunar lander program

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Blue Origin landers
An artist’s conception shows the human landing system that’s being developed by Blue Origin and its industry partners in the foreground, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon cargo lander in the far background. (Blue Origin Illustration)

The tussle over NASA funding for lunar landing systems has touched down in the Senate — with one leading senator seeking additional funding that could go to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, and another leading senator arguing against a “Bezos Bailout.”

The senator on the pro-funding side is Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Her amendment to the Endless Frontier Act could put Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and its space industry partners back in the running for billions of dollars of NASA support for their human landing system.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is on the anti-funding side: This week, he submitted an amendment that would “eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”

This all has to do with NASA’s decision last month to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander that’s designed to carry astronauts to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis program, as early as 2024.

NASA had been considering proposals from SpaceX as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics and the team led by Blue Origin (which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper). The optimal plan was to select two competitive proposals to go forward, but NASA officials said Congress didn’t appropriate enough money for two teams. So they went with SpaceX, which submitted the least expensive plan.

In response, Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office. The teams said that their proposals didn’t get proper consideration, and that NASA should have handled the competition differently with the budget it was given.

The GAO has until Aug. 4 to rule whether the award to SpaceX should stand or the competition should be redone. In the meantime, NASA has held up on the award.

Cantwell’s amendment calls for NASA to receive more than $10 billion in additional funding for a second lunar lander contract and other infrastructure needs. Her language is part of the version of the bill cleared by her committee this month.

The fact that the extra money could benefit a space program that’s basically headed by the world’s richest individual drew the ire of Sanders, a longtime critic of Amazon, Bezos and other billionaires. Lobbyists for Blue Origin and SpaceX are also in the thick of the fray, as detailed by The Washington Post.

Determining the winner of this latest battle of the billionaires — pitting Bezos against SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, America’s second-richest individual — will probably take months. Both houses of Congress have to approve authorizing legislation as well as an actual appropriation. And it’s not likely that Congress will get all that done before the GAO’s ruling, which could reset the terms of the competition in August.

Space News’ Jeff Foust probably had it right when he tweeted that there’s been “a lot of drama about a bill unlikely to become law in anything like its current form.”

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