NASA solicits proposals for second commercial manned lunar lander

Having received a budget boost from Congress for its manned lunar lander Artemis program, NASA yesterday announced that it is soliciting proposals from the private sector for a second lunar lander, so that the agency will not be reliant only on SpaceX’s Starship.

To bring a second entrant to market for the development of a lunar lander in parallel with SpaceX, NASA will issue a draft solicitation in the coming weeks. This upcoming activity will lay out requirements for a future development and demonstration lunar landing capability to take astronauts between orbit and the surface of the Moon. This effort is meant to maximize NASA’s support for competition and provides redundancy in services to help ensure NASA’s ability to transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

As part of this revised program, NASA also is negotiating a revision to its contract with SpaceX. It appears that this change will have SpaceX fly an additional manned mission with Starship, after which NASA would open up competition to everyone on future flights. The press release however is not entirely clear on this point.

This new competition will of course be a boon to the losers in the first manned lunar lander competition, Blue Origin and Dynetics. Both will certainly submit bids, as will others.

Senate committee: NASA must choose two companies to build manned lunar lander

We’re here to help you! Despite offering NASA only $100 million more for the program, the Senate Appropriations committee has directed the agency to award a second manned lunar lander contract, in addition to the one it gave SpaceX in April.

On Tuesday (Oct. 18), the Senate Appropriations Committee — the largest U.S. Senate committee that oversees all discretionary spending legislation in the Senate — released a draft report of nine appropriations bills for the fiscal year 2022 which included funding for NASA, according to SpaceNews.

The appropriators, in the report, state that NASA’s HLS program is not underfunded, despite the agency’s previous claims to the contrary. As shown in the report, the bill includes $24.83 billion for NASA, which is just slightly more than the $24.8 billion that NASA requested, and a $100 million increase in funding for HLS.

“NASA’s rhetoric of blaming Congress and this Committee for the lack of resources needed to support two HLS teams rings hollow,” the report states. The committee added that “having at least two teams providing services using the Gateway should be the end goal of the current development program,” referencing NASA’s Gateway, a planned lunar space station.

It might be possible for the increase in funding to cover a second contract, if that contract was awarded to Blue Origin. Jeff Bezos has made it clear that he would be willing to waive as much as $2 billion of the price for the contract, using his own ample funds to make up the difference. Whether that is enough to build it, with the $100 million the Senate appropriated, is unclear.

This bill of course has to pass the Senate, be approved as written by the House, and then signed by the President. These directives and budget changes thus might not end up in the final appropriations bill.

Blue Origin files lawsuit against Starship lunar contract award

What a joke: Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin on August 13th filed a lawsuit in federal court, attempting to overthrow the contract award NASA gave SpaceX’s Starship in its manned lunar lander Artemis project

In a court filing on Friday, Blue Origin said it continued to believe that two providers were needed to build the landing system, which will carry astronauts down to the Moon’s surface as early as 2024. It also accused Nasa of “unlawful and improper evaluation” of its proposals during the tender process. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America,” Blue Origin said.

The article then goes on to list the basic facts that make this lawsuit absurd. First, NASA had not been appropriated enough money by Congress to award two contracts, and had it done so, it would have violated the law. Second SpaceX’s bid was the lowest bid, far less than Blue Origin’s expensive price. Third, SpaceX was already test flying early prototypes of its Starship lander, while Blue Origin had built nothing. Fourth, many other technical issues made SpaceX’s bid superior.

Finally, the GAO, as an independent arbitrator, has already ruled against a Blue Origin protest, stating unequivocally that NASA had done nothing wrong in its contract process.

This lawsuit makes Blue Origin appear to be a very unserious company. Rather than putting its energies towards building rockets and spacecraft to demonstrate its capabilities, it focuses its effort on playing legal games in the courts. Such behavior will only make it seem less appealling when next it bids on a NASA or Space Force contract.

Blue Origin protests Starship contract award for lunar lander

Blue Origin today filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of NASA’s decision to award SpaceX’s Starship the sole contract for building a manned lunar lander, claiming the agency “moved the goalposts” during the award process.

Blue Origin says in the GAO protest that its “National Team,” which included Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, bid $5.99 billion for the HLS [Human Landing System] award, slightly more than double SpaceX’s bid. However, it argues that it was not given the opportunity to revise that bid when NASA concluded that the funding available would not allow it to select two bidders, as originally anticipated. NASA requested $3.3 billion for HLS in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal but received only $850 million in an omnibus appropriations bill passed in December 2020. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words kind of say it all. Blue Origin’s National Team put in a very high bid. Why should they have any expectation of winning?

Moreover, their track record, especially Blue Origin’s (the leader of the team), pales in comparison to SpaceX.
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Blue Origin completes first test of lunar lander engine

Capitalism in space: This week Jeff Bezos revealed that Blue Origin had successfully completed the first static test firing of its BE-7 rocket engine, intended for use in its Blue Moon lunar lander.

Company founder Jeff Bezos tweeted June 19 that the test of the BE-7 engine took place the previous day at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The 35-second test went as expected, he said. “Data looks great and hardware is in perfect condition,” he wrote in the post, which included a video of the test.

Bezos is clearly lobbying here for the contracts to build NASA’s first manned lunar lander should its Artemis program get funded.

Meanwhile, there is been no update on the status of his company’s BE-4 engine since April 2018. I wonder why..

Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.