Bernie Sanders' Plan to Cut NASA's $10bn Second Lunar Lander Crushed

The U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly to ensure that NASA is given funding for an extra $10 billion so that it has not one but two lunar landing systems ready to work this decade, crushing a motion by Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders aiming to scrap the idea.

Sanders has criticized the proposed NASA payment, which would come from federal funding, as a multi-billion dollar "bailout" to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose private space company Blue Origin would be a possible recipient of the money.

Laying out the motion in a hearing in April, Sanders used Bezos' lack of federal income tax payments and his purchase of a reportedly $500 million yacht as a reason to deny him and Blue Origin of the potential NASA payout. "So no, count me in as someone who does not think that the taxpayers of this country need to provide Mr. Bezos a $10 billion bailout to fuel his space hobby," he said.

The controversy surrounds NASA's plans to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time in decades as part of the Artemis program. The moon landing mission will see astronauts initially travel to the moon using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule before switching into another spacecraft for the descent to the moon's surface.

This latter part of the mission is called the Human Landing System (HLS), and NASA wants to use a private company to make the spacecraft. In April 2021, NASA announced that SpaceX had won a $2.9 billion contract after presenting what the Government Accountability Office described as "the lowest-priced proposal with the highest rating."

This stoked the ire of Bezos and Blue Origin, which had also been vying for the contract albeit with a higher price tag.

Blue Origin ended up launching a legal challenge to the decision, arguing that NASA should have awarded multiple contracts which it had suggested it might. This legal challenge was ultimately struck down.

However, in October 2021, the U.S. Senate said it wanted NASA to choose a second company to build a lunar lander after all. NASA's administrator Bill Nelson appeared to support this idea in comments he made to Congress on Tuesday this week.

Nelson said that the agency would like a second lunar lander option because "with that competitive spirit, you get it done cheaper."

On Wednesday night, the Senate voted against Sanders' motion that aimed to scrap what appears to be a more expensive $10 billion HLS contract by 78-17. Among those voting for Sanders' doomed motion were Florida Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott in a notable political agreement between Sanders on the left and Rubio and Scott on the right.

Space Policy Online reported that proponents of the second contract argued it would ensure both competition and redundancy, meaning it would be a backup if one HLS option were to prove unfeasible.

It is important to note that Blue Origin will likely not certainly be awarded the contract, as defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Dynetics have also expressed interest—though Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman previously partnered with Blue Origin for the HLS tender last time.

Bernie Sanders
Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders seen at a rally in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in October, 2021. The senator had called on senators to reject plans to grant $10 billion of funding to NASA for a second lunar landing contract. Yana Paskova/Getty