Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos wages lawfare on NASA and SpaceX

Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos wages lawfare on NASA and SpaceX
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Say what you will about Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics Replace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration Shatner pushes back on Prince William over space flight comments MORE, but he is not a quitter when it comes to getting a contract that he believes is his due. When NASA awarded a sole contract to Blue Origin’s main rival SpaceX for the Human Landing System (HLS) that will take Americans back to the moon, Bezos, as well as another contractor, Dynetics, complained to the General Accounting Office (GAO). On July 30, the GAO denied the protests. Congress provided only enough money for one HLS, at least for the first round. NASA found that SpaceX offered a superior design. The fact that Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskPrince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel Democrats' electric vehicle push sparks intense lobbying fight Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism? MORE offered the lowest bid did not hurt either.

A less determined man would have accepted the GAO’s judgment and would have ordered his engineers to refine the Blue Origin HLS design for the next round. All SpaceX won was one uncrewed test flight to the lunar surface and the Artemis III mission, the first human expedition to the moon since 1972. The next round will determine which contractors will develop their versions of the HLS going forward.

Instead, Bezos filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to overturn the award to SpaceX. By so doing, the man who revolutionized the retail industry with Amazon.com may have doomed Blue Origin from ever getting a major government contract, according to space reporter Eric Berger, writing for Ars Technica. Bezos’ efforts to get the lunar lander contract, which included an offer to knock $2 billion off his initial bid and much-mocked infographics denigrating the SpaceX lunar Starship, has alienated not only NASA but many Blue Origin employees. According to Tech Times, a lead engineer for Blue Origin’s lunar lander project has jumped ship to work for SpaceX.

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The lawsuit will definitely delay America’s return to the moon, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The delay is not likely to endear Bezos to the space agency or supporters of Project Artemis. 

Why Bezos is committing what may turn out to be a kamikaze move is unclear. Eric Berger reports that Bezos believes that he is entitled to an HLS contract because he thinks that his lobbying was instrumental in getting then-President TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE to greenlight the Project Artemis return to the moon program.

There are two problems with that belief. First, Trump regards Bezos with a great deal of contempt. According to Fox Business, the feud between Trump and Bezos goes back to 2015, before the Trump presidency, when Bezos joked that Trump should be sent into space. Trump, who does not suffer that kind of treatment gladly, never forgave Bezos.

Second, quite a few people were advocating a return to the moon, reversing President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Harris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia Biden to stump with McAuliffe Tuesday MORE’s decision to cancel the Bush 43-era program. Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineSpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission SpaceX all-civilian crew calls Tom Cruise from space How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? MORE, Trump’s choice to head NASA, was one of the more prominent of those advocates. That returning to the moon and later sending astronauts to Mars appealed to Trump’s Make America Great Again mindset no doubt had a lot to do with his decision as well.

What will Bezos do if his lawsuit fails? Whatever influence he has in Congress may not suffice to overcome the alienation that he has inflicted on the people at NASA and the military who write the checks. With the BE-4 rocket engines being delivered late for the United Launch Alliance Vulcan and the New Glenn orbital launcher suffering delays, all Blue Origin has to show for the money and effort it has expended is the New Shepard rocket. The New Shepard will be used to take people and payloads on suborbital hops.

Conceivably, Bezos could go it alone, breaking free of reliance on government contracts. Thanks to Amazon, he is the richest man in the world and could afford it.

The problem is that Blue Origin has more resembled a legacy aerospace company like Boeing or Lockheed Martin than the swashbuckling, risk-taking “new space” firms like SpaceX. Blue Origin has been, thus far, slow and plodding, an approach that minimizes risk but also the possibility of success. All the money in the world will not suffice to make Bezos into a true Space Baron unless he reinvents Blue Origin.

Jeff Bezos may despise Elon Musk. But Musk has provided the formula for success in the coming age of commercial space. Bezos needs to take some risks, blow some rockets up and push past the edge of the envelope. Thus, he may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.