Bezos Contract Fight May Delay American Return to Moon

Amazon mogul offers personal funds to reopen government bidding war

Then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at the White House in 2016 / Getty Images
July 27, 2021

Jeff Bezos is pushing NASA to reconsider his space company's bid to build the craft that will bring Americans back to the surface of the moon, potentially delaying U.S. efforts to establish a permanent lunar presence by 2024.

In an open letter to NASA administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos said he would personally fund construction of the "human landing system" after his company, Blue Origin, lost the bid to SpaceX. Bezos maintains that SpaceX won the project inappropriately, since NASA originally promised to contract with two companies. Experts say a challenge from Bezos could further delay the lunar program, Artemis, which is already running behind schedule.

This letter is not the first time Bezos has attempted to wrench government contracts away from competitors. After Amazon Web Services lost a Department of Defense cloud contract to Microsoft in 2019, Bezos sued the federal government, leading to a lengthy legal battle and the eventual cancellation of the contract. Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) has pushed for a thorough investigation of potential corruption in how the contract was awarded, after Amazon lobbyists helped craft the contract specifications.

NASA's Artemis program was launched in 2017 to establish a permanent commercial and scientific presence on the moon. NASA envisions launching a space station that will orbit the moon by 2023 and hopes to send astronauts to that station and then to the moon by 2024, although it is running behind schedule. Technology developed through Artemis is intended for eventual use for an inaugural manned mission to Mars.

Blue Origin has struggled to compete in the space industry, and multiple former employees complain of a slow-moving, cautious company culture. Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO in July to devote more time to Blue Origin, and recent reports indicate he is overhauling the company's approach in an effort to catch up to SpaceX.

Blue Origin's initial bid for the contract was priced at almost double that of SpaceX and did not contain any of the promises of private funding in the new offer. SpaceX received $2.9 billion from NASA in the original contract and promised to invest $6 billion of its own capital into necessary launch and landing technology.

The Government Accountability Office is determining whether NASA erred in awarding the Artemis contract to SpaceX alone. The agency says budget constraints prevented it from awarding the contract to two firms, as originally planned.