Blue Origin’s petty drama with SpaceX exposes its own greatest flaw, experts say
Blue Origin published an infographic critical of the SpaceX lunar vehicle NASA chose over Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander.
Blue Origin may have lost its appeal contesting NASA’s awarding rival SpaceX the contract to build a lunar lander vehicle. Still, Jeff Bezos’s space company is not taking the defeat lying down.
The space company published an infographic on its website Wednesday arguing that the SpaceX landing vehicle, a modified version of SpaceX’s Starship, is unproven and potentially unsafe for astronauts.
This is not the first time Blue Origin has taken a swing at another billionaire’s space company. The company tweeted a similar infographic on July 9 favorably comparing its New Shepherd vehicle to the SpaceShip Two of Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson, and noting that Virgin’s vehicle does not fly above the Karman line, the internationally recognized boundary of outer space.
But whatever the technical merit of Blue Origins' arguments in their new attack on SpaceX, it may be for nothing but spite, given that the Government Accountability Office rejected Blue Origins' appeal. SpaceX and Elon Musk now have the go-ahead to keep working on the lunar Starship for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon.
“There is no chance of SpaceX not proceeding with HLS for Artemis III,” Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of space consulting firm Astralytical, wrote in a tweet on Thursday. “NASA says it won. The GAO says it won. Attacking SpaceX only spreads negativity.”
Here’s the background — “Lunar Starship: Immensely Complex and High Risk” is the large font headline of the Blue Origin infographic, which goes on to list the reasons the company believes NASA’s choosing SpaceX to build a lunar lander was a bad decision.
- The Super Heavy booster plus Starship — Integral to SpaceX’s design is the reusable first stage booster to launch Starship, which functions as a second stage. If successfully developed, the pair will make up the largest-ever launch vehicle.
- Boca Chica — SpaceX plans to launch the Lunar Starship from Boca Chica, in Texas, which has never hosted an orbital launch before.
- Orbital refueling — For the massive Starship to reach higher orbits such as the moon, it will need to be refueled — a process known as cryogenic fluid transfer — with “up to 100 metric tons of propellants” from as-yet undeveloped tanker variants of the Starship vehicle.
- Multiple launches per mission — Blue Origin argues that to provide the lunar Starship with enough fuel for a single lunar mission, SpaceX will need 10 or more launches from Earth.
And although not detailed in the text on the infographic, Blue Origin also includes a figure comparing the height of the lunar Starship and the Blue Origin’s Blue moon vehicle, noting it’s 32 feet from the vehicle’s hatch to the lunar surface and 126 feet for astronauts descending from Starship.
The infographic then promotes Blue Origin’s perceived advantages, notably that it can fly on a variety of launch vehicles and would require only three launches to assemble and fly to the moon. “Further,” the infographic reads, “the system is entirely built on heritage systems and proven technologies that are flying today.”
There’s not necessarily anything factually wrong with Blue Origin’s arguments, Forczyk tells Inverse, but “it was quite the argument to make when Blue Origin has not yet launched anything to orbit.” SpaceX, meanwhile, has flown cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, has safely launched and recovered Starship from an altitude of 33,000 feet, and plans to make its first launch of Starship on the Super Heavy booster by the end of the year.
SpaceX’s plans are indeed risky, Forczyk says, but so are Blue Origins. “It is disingenuous to promote a competitor's design as risky when in fact, both of them are complex and risky,” she says. “Spaceflight is fairly risky.”
What’s the source of Blue Origin’s beef?
In April, NASA awarded a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build the Human Landing System (HLS) component of the Artemis moon program, choosing the lunar Starship variant over Blue Origin’s Blue Moon and a third prototype developed by Dynetics. NASA’s source selection document noted that the SpaceX bid was the lowest of the three by a wide margin.
Blue Origin and Dynetics then filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, leading to a pause in the HLS program until the GAO’s decision in favor of NASA on July 30. It’s a decision that ensures the first crewed lunar landing in more than 50 years will be made by a SpaceX vehicle, not a Blue Origin craft.
But the NASA source selection document also clarified that NASA would have liked to have made two awards and had two lander vehicles available, but did not due to lack of funds.
What’s next for Blue Origin?
While infographics will not supersede a GAO ruling, Blue Origin is not out of the lunar landing game entirely.
The SpaceX contract only runs through the first crewed lunar landing mission, Artemis III, currently scheduled for October 2024. Meanwhile, in April, NASA called for proposals for lander vehicles to be used in routine lunar astronaut transportation, presumably for Artemis IV and beyond.
Bezos and Blue Origin might be making their case for the future, and specifically to Congress, according to Forczyk.
“Blue Origin is pretty much putting this out there to speak to Congress to say, ‘my competitor’s design is riskier than mine,” she says, “‘therefore you should have a second competition to have two providers in case my competitor is too risky and fails.”
Editor’s note, 8/6/21: A previous version of this article stated “Blue Origin has not yet launched anything to space.” This has been corrected to state “anything to orbit.”