After being dismissed at the end of a soap opera as memorable as it is embarrassing, Blue Origin will have a new opportunity to join the Artemis program.
To everyone’s surprise, NASA has just announced that it will finally grant a second contract landermore than a year after having selected SpaceX and rejected Blue Origin at the end of a series for the less incredible.
Unlike the contract signed last year, this one no longer concerns the Artemis 3 mission which is already more or less locked. It is a question of preparing a second lander for a later mission. The objective: to start laying the foundations for routine lunar logistics after the return with great fanfare. This mission should take place in 2026 or 2027.
A major extension of the Artemis program
This rather discreet announcement therefore hides a major extension of the Artemis program. As a reminder, this is an ambitious series of missions that will gradually bring humans back to the Moon over the next few years. It will start very soon with an unmanned flight (Artemis 1). NASA will then continue on a manned flight around the Moon (Artemis 2), before landing there with Artemis 3, probably in 2026.
This new contract will be open to US companies with one exception; SpaceX, which has already inherited the first contract, will not be able to claim a second. Elon Musk’s firm must already take care of the construction of the Human Landing System. As a reminder, this is the centerpiece of the Artemis 3 mission; it is on board this machine that the astronauts will return to set foot on our satellite.
It is therefore an excessively prestigious and very remunerative contract, in financial terms, but also and above all in terms of brand image. It was also coveted by other companies; NASA had in fact hinted that it could possibly grant several. An issue on which Blue Origin, the firm of Jeff Bezos, was counting a lot, which aims to compete with SpaceX at all levels.
Blue Origin immediately in the ranks
Unfortunately, NASA received only a quarter of the envelope it had requested from the American Congress for this deadline (850 million against 3.4 billion). It therefore had to make concessions, and its choice fell on Blue Origin, deemed too greedy and too presumptuous in the negotiations.
The firm of Jeff Bezos was therefore dismissed after playing with fire with great blows of dubious commercial maneuvers. A situation that overwhelmed the board of directors of Blue Origin, which responded with a heavy fire of legal actions that paralyzed the program for several months before being dismissed once and for all.
Jeff Bezos, a handsome player for the occasion, sided with the court’s verdict. But he was also very clear that the pill had been very difficult to pass; anything but a surprise, knowing that it is his personal and commercial rival who took the lion’s share at his expense. We can therefore expect the firm to position itself particularly aggressively on this new call for tenders, and is de facto one of the favourites.
The announcement of this new contract therefore certainly did not fall on deaf ears; Blue Origin immediately put itself on the warpath and will run after this knife between the teeth contract. “Blue Origin is ready to compete”, hastened to affirm a spokesperson for the firm to TechCrunch.
SpaceX will also win
But even if it will not be able to claim a new contract, this extension of the program also represents a big change for SpaceX. And for good reason: the contract that already binds Elon Musk’s firm to NASA will be significantly modified.
The previous contract was technically due to end after Artemis 3. After this mission, a second operational contract would have taken over; it was expected that SpaceX would turn into a service provider that would sell Starship trips to NASA for subsequent trips. Now, under this new contract, NASA expects SpaceX to produce a second lander once it has completed that of Artemis 3.
So there could well be an additional moon landing as part of the Artemis program. NASA, however, did not specify what would happen after that deadline. We can expect that SpaceX and the future winner of this new contract will be systematically put in competition for each launch.
The competition starts again
It is in any case a strategy that would be consistent with the positioning of Bill Nelson. The NASA administrator has never hidden his desire to make NASA a major player in the transition to this new ecosystem, where private aerospace will play a leading role. “I promised competition, here it is,” he said.
This obviously implies introducing a form of competitive selection; now, NASA is perfectly positioned to play this pivotal role. It can push private players to jostle by offering ever more efficient technologies at lower prices and in ever shorter lead times.
For now, NASA still refuses to talk about money; we don’t yet know how much it will cost her, how much she intends to ask Congress, or how much Congress will be willing to give her. The answers to all of these questions will likely come sometime in the spring, when the US administration’s budget will be unveiled on next March 28.