September 18, 2021

Nelson maintains his optimism that Congress will increase funding for lunar landers

2 min read

Bill Nelson, the NASA Administrator, says he remains optimistic that Congress will approve more cash to allow NASA to pick a second lunar lander developer. Still, he refuses to elaborate on Blue Origin’s request to reduce its prices to secure a contract. Nelson stated the commercial crew project presented an argument for choosing the second company in the Human Landing System (HLS) project during a media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center on July 29 about the forthcoming launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship on the second uncrewed test flight.

In the commercial crew program, he asked openly, “What if we hadn’t had two competitors, and it had just been Boeing?” Boeing has yet to transport passengers on its aircraft. Still, SpaceX is now on its second operational journey to International Space Station, having launched its first crewed flight over a year ago. “That should be enough to persuade you why we need competition.”

He went on to say that NASA welcomes a competitive advantage in the HLS program, although only issuing one contract to SpaceX in April due to a funding shortage. “At this moment, I’m extremely optimistic that Congress will provide us with extra monies to enable us to continue with that competition,” he stated. So yet, Congress has been unable to provide those additional funds. While Nelson testified before Senate and House committees that NASA was seeking more than $5 billion for HLS, possibly as part of an infrastructure and jobs plan, a House spending bill for the financial year 2022 raises NASA’s HLS budget by only $150 million, to about $1.345 billion. HLS does not seem to be included in an infrastructure measure now being reviewed by the Senate.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, suggested waiving a maximum of $2 billion in costs over three years and performing an extra demonstration trip at no expense to NASA if the agency handed the business a second HLS contract in an open letter to Nelson on July 26. Blue Origin’s initial proposal for the HLS project was roughly $6 billion, which is more than double SpaceX’s $2.9 billion winning bid.

Blue Origin, as well as the other HLS bidder, Dynetics, had filed protests in April, and the Government Accountability Office is still looking into them. NASA has been silent about its objectives for the HLS program, citing the GAO’s evaluation, which has an August 4 deadline. When questioned how NASA would react to Bezos’ plan, Nelson referred to the GAO protest. After the GAO’s verdict, he said, “I would like you to bring up that issue next week.”

Blue Origin’s HLS plan included Draper, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman as members of its so-called “National Team.” Northrop executives dodged a query about how Blue Origin’s plan would influence the HLS program during an earnings call on July 29.

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