Since NASA selected SpaceX to work on the Human Landing System for the Artemis Program, Blue Origin forced the space agency to put the whole thing on hold by filing a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Dynetics has filed its own, separate complaint. NASA claims that it had to down-select to only one company’s proposal instead of two as originally planned due to budget issues, as its budget is very dependent on Congress.
Now Senator Maria Cantwell (D-MI), who represents the state that Blue Origin is based in, has weighed in on the matter with a proposed amendment to a bill meant to spur greater investment in scientific and technological advances. The amendment would allow for $10.03 billion in additional funding for NASA, which may be just enough for the space agency to continue with two proposals as originally planned.
SpaceX’s Starship-derived Human Landing System proposal came with a price tag of $2.89 billion, which was reportedly the lowest bid out of the three competing proposals. It was less than half the cost of either Blue Origin’s or Dynetics’ proposals. The cost saving to taxpayers may have been a major factor in the decision to choose SpaceX.
“We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, who had been leading the human exploration program for NASA.
The amendment would also mandate that NASA continue development of the “exploration upper stage” of the Space Launch System (SLS) and have it ready to go by the third launch of the SLS. The SLS has been heavily criticized for delays and cost overruns, although contractors have been delivering components for the system recently. NASA says that it won’t need the exploration upper stage for its early Artemis flights and it plans to use a commercially available upper stage to launch the first crews slated to go to the Moon.
Critics of the SLS say that it will be less expensive in the long run to scrap it altogether and move forward with options like the reusable rockets offered by SpaceX. Despite having four explosions in a row, SpaceX has recently managed to land a prototype for the interplanetary rocket known as Starship and keep it intact. The development work for Starship appears to be funded in-house, which may represent an additional cost savings for space agencies that opt to use it for crewed missions to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX is also the first private company to fly astronauts to the International Space Station under a Commercial Crew contract, with the most recent success in that department being the splashdown of Crew-1 in the Gulf of Mexico. It also has a contract to launch components of the Lunar Gateway, which will be used to provide logistical support for crews traveling to the Moon.
Although Blue Origin also has a Commercial Crew contract, it has not yet flown actual crews. It plans to make its first crewed flight in July and has opened up the option to bid on a seat for this flight. This will be a brief suborbital flight that will spend four minutes above the Karman line, which is the official boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. Blue Origin plans to use the New Shepard spacecraft on this flight. This spacecraft was named in honor of astronaut Alan Shepard, who made a similar suborbital flight for NASA’s Mercury program and was (perhaps also appropriately in this case) the second man in space, after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Like Blue Origin must be, Alan Shepard was reportedly frustrated by taking second place to a rival.
The bill currently working its way through Congress, known as the Endless Frontier Act, is seen as an authorizing bill instead of an appropriations bill, which means that Congress may still choose not to fund anything listed in the bill or its amendments. Its supporters in Congress say that the Endless Frontier Act is meant to keep America competitive against China amid ongoing diplomatic tensions.
“This bill … in the main is supposed to be about competing, out-competing, out-innovating, outgrowing communist China,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Todd Young (R-IN) in an apparent criticism of Cantwell’s proposed amendment.
If Senator Cantwell is serious about NASA moving forward with both SpaceX and Blue Origin, she will have to separately push for an appropriations package that includes sufficient funding for NASA. The text of the proposed amendment can be seen here.