by Logan Cook, staff writer
OCTOBER 2021 – NASA plans to return to the Moon by 2024, but there is controversy over who will take humans there. NASA’s Artemis program, the set of missions to take people to the Moon for the first time in 50 years, has been subject to many delays. Inadequate government funding has been a main cause of these delays and, more recently, billionaires have protested NASA’s plans.
NASA contracted three companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Dynetics, to design a Human Lander System (HLS) on April 30, 2020. The task given to these companies was to design and develop a lunar lander that could safely ferry humans from the Orion capsule (the deep space habitat for astronauts) in lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back. NASA planned to take care of launching the astronauts from Earth via the Space Launch System (SLS) Rocket, and orbiting them around the Moon via the Orion Crew Capsule.
SpaceX and Dynetics chose to make their designs alone, while Blue Origin formed the “National Team,” a joint design team composed of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.
NASA’s $2.89 billion contract to build the HLS was awarded solely to SpaceX, on April 26, 2021. Lisa Watson-Morgan, the project manager for HLS, stated “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX to help us achieve the Artemis mission and look forward to continuing our work toward landing astronauts on the moon,” when asked about the contract in a phone conference with the Washington Post.
A long time partner of NASA, SpaceX was founded by Musk in 2002, with the mission of pioneering the commercial space industry. NASA chose SpaceX to demonstrate the ability of its Falcon rockets to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) in 2006. SpaceX’s Falcon rockets proved themselves as reliable resupply vehicles and have launched both supply and manned missions to the ISS in collaboration with NASA.
Musk, a multibillionaire, has been able to use his fortune to foster innovation within SpaceX, namely leading the way for reusable rockets. SpaceX’s combination of innovation and continued success has made them one of NASA’s most trusted commercial partners.
SpaceX’s HLS design includes the Starship, a reusable, multiplanetary rocket and the largest rocket ever built. SpaceX hopes Starship, which is currently being developed and tested, will have the capabilities to take humans to both the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX is modifying a version of Starship to function solely as a lunar lander for HLS. SpaceX’s plan for a lunar landing involves launching the lander into Low Earth Orbit with subsequent Starship launches to refuel the lander. After being refueled, the lander would take its trip to the Moon. This process could take a total of 16 launches in two week increments, a focal point for the argument of Blue Origin, who is trying to win a piece of the contract.
One of the other companies chosen by NASA, Blue Origin, was founded by Bezos in 2000. Bezos, the founder of Amazon and a multibillionaire, claimed to be passionate about space, but rarely provided Blue Origin with the funding requested by engineers. Blue Origin’s flagship rocket, New Glenn, is still in the design stages, has faced multiple delays, and has yet to perform an orbital launch of a system designed in house.
The National Team split the overall design among its members, delegating the transfer vehicle to Northrop Grumman, the lunar lander to Blue Origin, the ascent vehicle to Lockheed Martin, and the navigation systems to Draper. The proposal does not involve designing new rockets, opting to use already proven United Launch Alliance rockets. The transfer vehicle, lunar lander, and Orion capsule would each launch separately, a total of three launches. The components would then dock together in lunar orbit.
Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper all publicly accepted NASA’s decision to award the HLS contract solely to SpaceX.
In contrast to its National Team partners, Blue Origin began a public relations campaign to protest the choice of SpaceX. Blue Origin designed a series of infographics that described the risks behind SpaceX’s plan, calling the plan “Immensely Complex & High Risk.” The National Team’s design was displayed on the infographics, being described as “Safe, Low-Risk, Fast.” Blue Origin’s argument stands on the basis of SpaceX’s possible 16 launches being unnecessary compared to the National Team’s proposed three launches.
Blue Origin used the public relations campaign to claim that NASA’s decision to only choose one company would breed uncompetitive business and delay the program. Blue Origin claimed that if NASA were to award the contract to two separate companies, it would incentivize the companies to work competitively and improve their designs.
Blue Origin filed a complaint based on these claims, with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in late April, which was just days after SpaceX won the contract. The GAO determined that NASA’s actions were fair and lawful, stating in their decision that “NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single [HLS] award.” The protest delayed SpaceX from starting the contract for 95 days.
Blue Origin filed the same complaint with the Federal Court of Claims (FCC), after the GAO’s ruling. A U.S. Judge set a hearing date of Oct. 14. In response, NASA delayed SpaceX’s ability to continue work on the contract until Nov. 1. The FCC has the ability to overturn NASA’s decision on the contract.
“I understand why NASA would choose SpaceX over Blue Origin,” said 10th-grader Zachary Totaro. “SpaceX is actively testing their design, and Blue Origin is not testing their design, yet. [Blue Origin] has been around for longer than SpaceX but has gotten less done, so I think NASA’s decision is just common sense.”
Musk took to Twitter to voice his view on Bezos’ actions. “The sad thing is that even if Santa Claus suddenly made their hardware real for free, the first thing you’d want to do is cancel it,” Musk wrote in a tweet. Musk and SpaceX have taken no legal action to counter Blue Origin’s.
All four National Team members, along with Musk and SpaceX, did not respond to The Hive’s request for commentary on the situation.