Senate Approves Amendment for Additional Funding for NASA’s Lunar Lander

As part of an ongoing dispute over competing lunar lander designs involving NASA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin, Blue Origin has previously filed a dispute with the Government Accountability Office over NASA’s decision to move forward with only SpaceX’s Starship-derived Human Landing System. NASA had previously planned to move forward with two proposed lunar landing designs, but didn’t have the budget for both.

Now the Senate has approved a proposed amendment to an existing bill called the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which supports scientific and technological research as part of a bid to stay competitive against China. The amendment will increase funding for NASA’s lunar lander development by $10 billion, which will make it possible for NASA to move forward with the proposals put forward by both SpaceX and Blue Origin.

SpaceX’s bid came in the lowest at only $2.9 billion. So far, the company has been best known for bringing launch costs down by developing reusable hardware, including the Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon, and the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket launcher. Although it recently abandoned its efforts to capture payload fairings with nets, it has redesigned the fairings to be better able to withstand corrosive seawater, which make it easier to refurbish them for reuse.

SpaceX has also recently received a contract to launch the first components of the Lunar Gateway, which will provide logistical support for future crewed missions to the Moon. The Lunar Gateway will be capable of supporting missions of greater complexity than was possible during the Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Blue Origin’s bid came in at about $6 billion. Its complaint with the Government Accountability Office alleges that NASA gave SpaceX a chance to modify its bid without giving competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics the same opportunity. Dynetics has also filed a complaint with similar allegations.

If the complaints are successful, it could delay NASA’s current plan to land human crews on the Moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis Program. While the complaints work their way through the Government Accountability Office, NASA has officially put work on the lunar lander on hold, although SpaceX could fund some design work on its own in the meantime.

If the complaints fail, NASA could move forward with only SpaceX’s design even if Congress approves the additional funding. However, Blue Origin’s lobbyists say that the additional funding could allow NASA to move forward with another company’s proposal without having to reset the clock on the bidding process.

Blue Origin’s lobbyists argue that fickle funding for NASA was a major reason for its decision to go with the least expensive bid regardless of the actual merits of SpaceX’s proposal. Bernie Sanders has been typically vocal in his opposition for additional funding for the landing system that NASA needs for its Artemis Program:

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) had this to say about it:

Others called the proposed $10 billion in funding a “Bezos bailout”, which would not be entirely unfair, considering the circumstances. NASA likely just had to choose the more affordable option because it couldn’t afford to buy both:

Former senator Bill Nelson, who is now the NASA administrator, said of the overall bill:

“The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which includes the NASA authorization bill, is an investment in scientific research and technological innovation that will help ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space and sets us on a path to execute many landings on the Moon in this decade.”

NASA has reportedly already filed a rebuttal with the Government Accountability Office defending its decision to move forward with only SpaceX. It says that reversing the decision could set a bad precedent and create a jumbled legal and bureaucratic mess in an environment where the cost of maintaining a government bureaucracy is already high.