New York CNN Business  — 

Virgin Galactic said Monday that it no longer plans to conduct a key test flight of its spacecraft this week because of a surge in new Covid-19 cases and resulting related restrictions in New Mexico, home to the company’s glitzy spaceport.

Both of the billionaires’ space companies are working to develop lunar landers, vehicles capable of making a gentle touch down on the moon’s rocky surface.

And the companies gave NASA two wildly different proposals for getting boots on the moon. SpaceX plans to use Starship, a gargantuan rocket and spacecraft system currently in development that Musk hopes will go on to colonize Mars one day. And Blue Origin gave a more straightforward plan to develop a lunar lander much like those used for the mid-20th century NASA Apollo missions, which remain the only missions that have ever put humans on the moon.

The current drama was kicked off when Congress allotted NASA about two billion dollars less than it requested, and the space agency chose to go with only one contractor for its Human Landing System (HLS) at least for the first moon landing the agency has planned.

Blue Origin has been fighting that decision ever since, creating a public and occasionally petty battle between the companies.

Here’s what went down, why it matters, and what to expect.

The billionaires, Artemis, & HLS

The United States’ approach to exploring outer space is at a turning point. NASA’s Artemis Program aims to put two people, including the first woman and person of color, on the moon by 2024. Then the goal is to establish a permanent lunar settlement.

And, as is the case with the Artemis HLS contracts, Artemis is also the stage for a truly spectacular example of the current American zeitgeist — pitting the two richest men in the world against each other and finding out what, if any, new technologies emerge.

Last April, NASA handed out three contracts to SpaceX, Blue Origin and Alabama-based Dynetics, which were intended to kickstart development of their lunar landers and were worth about $100 million to $600 million each. NASA then planned to select up to two companies to get the final contracts.

But, despite months of the agency’s lobbying, Congress ultimately gave NASA less than a billion of the $3.2 billion the agency had requested for HLS development.

The drama

When it came time to bid for the NASA contract, Dynetics put up a $9 billion offer and Blue Origin gave a $6 billion bid, both of which were cast aside in favor of SpaceX’s $3 billion offer. And, citing budget constraints, NASA announced plans to move forward with SpaceX as its sole HLS partner.

But Blue Origin immediately shot back by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog and auditing group, arguing that NASA should’ve revamped the contracting competition after it became clear that it didn’t have enough money to fund multiple contracts. And, the protest alleged, NASA gave unfair leeway and, potentially, preferential treatment to SpaceX.

Such protests are far from uncommon in the world of government contracting, and the GAO swiftly denied Blue Origin’s claim in July. The GAO said that NASA did not do anything inappropriate during its evaluation of the proposals, and public records from those proceedings reaffirm that NASA considered SpaceX’s proposal not only cheaper than the other two, but also the most advanced in terms of the company’s technology and program management plans.

Bezos also personally intervened at one point by sending an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in which he pledged to waive $2 billion of development cost if it would get Blue Origin’s hat back in the ring.

“Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes, and cost overruns,” Bezos’ lettter reads. “Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.”

Those pleas went unanswered. Then Blue Origin escalated the standoff again this week by filing a lawsuit in federal claims court.

Meanwhile, the PR offensives began. Blue Origin put out an infographic that attempts to paint SpaceX’s plans — which involve using multiple launches to get Starship vehicles and tankers full of fuel into orbit — as an outlandish, straying too far from technology that has already been proven. “Immensely complex and high risk,” the infographic’s headline blared.

Musk personally shot back on Twitter, posting that if “lobbying & lawyers could get u to orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto [right now.]”

What’s next

A federal judge has an October 12 deadline to give Blue Origin an answer on its last-ditch effort to get back in the HLS program.

So far, NASA has said only that it’s “reviewing details of the case” and will provide an update on the Artemis Program “soon.”

Many space enthusiasts have meanwhile been dragging Bezos and Blue Origin through the mud. Industry onlookers and insiders have warned a baseless lawsuit could slow SpaceX down and ultimately delay the moon landing.

And as others noted, Blue Origin’s protests over this contract run counter to comments Bezos himself made in 2019 about how contract protests can hamstring the space industry.

During the Apollo era, Bezos claimed, NASA would hand out contracts without issue. “Today, there would be three protests and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win.”

“It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology,” Bezos said of NASA’s procurement processes. “Which I know for a fact, for all the well-meaning people at NASA, is frustrating.”

Many experts already doubt that NASA can put boots on the moon by its 2024 deadline whether or not Blue Origin’s protest bid is successful. And there may be larger market forces at work that make a single-source contractor for HLS sensible.

Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator and a key figure in the push for commercial contracting methods at NASA, told CNN Business that she doesn’t agree with Blue Origin’s argument that handing a sole-source contract to SpaceX makes the HLS program anti-competitive.

“I’m not sure there will be a market for a lunar lander anytime soon,” Garver said, adding that NASA is the only obvious customer for such missions at the moment. So, the companies don’t even have the lure of a potential commercial market to bolster their competition, she said.

(SpaceX does already have at least one customer who has promised to fork over the money to take Starship on a joy ride around the moon.)

Garver is also confident SpaceX’s Starship can succeed, adding “a lot of people bet against Elon and SpaceX — but they usually don’t win.”

Looking at the big picture, Garver added, the whole Blue Origin vs. SpaceX standoff is a sign of the unusual and exciting times that the space industry is entering.

“You don’t have a customer beyond NASA for this service, but we happen to have two billionaires interested in paying for it. And I wouldn’t have foreseen that, and I count NASA lucky.”