It has been a long couple of months in the space industry with NASA’s Human Lander System (HLS). While the space agency initially gave the contract to SpaceX, Blue Origin has refused to stop fighting for a spot on the contract.
Following rounds of litigation and complaints, NASA’s initial decision still stands. However, Blue Origin isn’t letting go, so much that the company’s decision to keep pursuing the contract is now affecting its workforce.
A Flood of Resignations From Blue Origin
Earlier this month, a report from CNBC confirmed that several staffers at Blue Origin left the company following the lunar lander system debacle. As the report explained, Blue Origin lost no less than 17 senior staff members, with several of them even taking jobs at rival companies.
Among the top engineers who left are Lauren Lyone, who said earlier this month that she had taken a role as the Chief Operations Officer (COO) at Firefly Aerospace. This Texas-based aerospace company develops small and medium-sized vehicles for commercial launches into orbit. Nitin Arora, who was the lead engineer on Blue Origin’s lunar lander system program, also exited the company in the past few weeks. Arora confirmed that he had joined SpaceX in a LinkedIn post, although he didn’t point out the role he would take going forward.
A separate report from Fox Business confirmed that Jeff Ashby, an ex-NASA astronaut, had also left the company - as well as Steve Bennet; an engineer who was one of the central figures in the New Shepard launch program.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the resignations will really affect Blue Origin. The company has a workforce of over 1,500 people, and it will definitely have enough people lining up to fill any vacant roles.
Bezos’s Ambition Costing Blue Origin?
While none of the reports claimed that the resignations are due to Blue Origin's lawsuits, it’s quite challenging not to think so. Blue Origin has been adamant in its pursuit of a place on this program, with the company initiating a lawsuit against NASA last week.
According to reports, Blue Origin filed a suit with the United States Court of Federal Claims, challenging "NASA's unlawful and improper evaluation of proposals" that were submitted for the Human Lander System. Confirming the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Blue Origin said:
"We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America," Blue Origin said.
The company also pointed out that it is trying to "remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System."
With the suit ready to go, NASA has had no choice but to halt work on the HLS with SpaceX. Work on the project won’t start until the beginning of November, with the two parties now waiting even longer to begin a project that will hopefully be ready by 2024. Reuters also reported that oral arguments for the case wouldn’t begin until October.
Bill Nelson, NASA's Administrator, has already decried the effect of the lawsuit on work progress. Speaking to Space News, Nelson explained that this suit will significantly push back work on the agency’s Artemis program. In part, he said:
“The lawyers at the Justice Department are the ones that handle the case. NASA does not handle the case. But my understanding from our lawyers, talking to the Justice Department lawyers who will present a case, is that they should have an idea on the schedule moving forward within the next two weeks. So, this is a matter that is out of our hands. It’s in the legal system, and it’s being handled by the Department of Justice.”
Bezos’s mission to go to the moon with NASA hasn’t all been lawsuits. In an open letter to NASA last month, the billionaire explained that he would cover the costs of the mission if the agency agreed to put Blue Origin on the project. Keep in mind that SpaceX had won the contract with an award of $2.9 billion.
The offer from Bezos is a permanent waiver of Blue Origin’s fee, allowing the government to get more leeway as it pays the company back. The billionaire added that this offer shows Blue Origin’s commitment to helping NASA get on the moon and working with all stakeholders to bring this objective to life. As Bezos explained, competition amongst contractors will be much better than having a single-player approach.
If the proposal is accepted, fees up to $2 billion will be permanently waived for the next two fiscal years. Blue Origin will also bear the cost of any other low-Earth orbit missions to handle safety concerns while picking up the tab for any cost overruns.