Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, plans to attempt to use a bipartisan piece of legislation meant to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s technological advances to instead steer what could end up being a huge boon of a federal contract worth billions of dollars to a company operating in her home state owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.
Cantwell, the chair of the panel that will consider the supposedly anti-China bill on Wednesday, is proposing amendment language to the plan that would authorize a second contract from NASA for a key part of the Artemis program that aims to put Americans back on the moon soon. NASA, through the Artemis program, awarded a contract last month for what is called a Human Landing System (HLS) to billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, a direct competitor of Bezos’s Blue Origin company.
Both Musk’s and Bezos’s companies competed for the HLS contract in the Artemis program, as did another firm called Dynetics. SpaceX won the deal, NASA announced on April 16, in a hyped-up press release that was headlined: “As Artemis Moves Forward, NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Next Americans on Moon.”
“SpaceX’s HLS Starship, designed to land on the Moon, leans on the company’s tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles,” NASA’s press release stated. “Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks. The Starship architecture is intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations.”
The contract with SpaceX is worth $2.89 billion and is for Musk’s company to develop what is called the Human Landing System to land American astronauts on the moon for the first time in decades. In addition to the press release announcing that SpaceX won the deal, NASA released a video further explaining how Blue Origin and Dynetics had also been competing for the contract but that SpaceX won it in the end:
Having competed for the contract, and lost out, Blue Origin faced a major setback from NASA’s decision. Blue Origin is appealing NASA’s decision to award the deal to SpaceX, CBS News reported shortly after NASA’s announcement. On April 27, CBS revealed that Blue Origin would seek to overturn NASA’s contract to SpaceX.
“Blue Origin announced Monday that it is protesting NASA’s decision earlier this month to award a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for development of a new lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis moon program, rejecting competing proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics,” CBS News’s William Harwood wrote.
That appeal process is expected to last months and not resolve until later in the summer at the earliest.
But Bezos’s home state senator in Washington state stepped up in recent days with an amendment she plans to attempt to force onto the Endless Frontier Act on Wednesday that would sidestep the appeal process with NASA and instead create a congressionally-mandated second contract for HLS under NASA’s Artemis program. Her amendment would also authorize $10 billion for that second contract, and while the legislation text does not say anything about who would get that deal — and does not say anything about Blue Origin or Bezos — congressional sources familiar with the matter told Breitbart News that it is widely expected that Blue Origin would aggressively compete for the additional HLS moon landing contract.
Essentially what that means is Cantwell is carving out what could end up being a $10 billion deal for a company in her home state, a company that NASA determined was not the right fit for developing moon landing technology. Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Washington, in Cantwell’s state. Bezos’s other major company, Amazon, is headquartered in Seattle.
There are many politically remarkable things about this. First and foremost, Cantwell is doing this in a piece of legislation called the Endless Frontier Act. The massive bipartisan legislation — which boasts support from a wide spectrum of both Democrats and Republicans — is supposedly meant to counter the long-term planning of the Chinese Communist Party’s investments in infrastructure, technology, academia, business, and more. The legislation, however, has begun to face some criticisms from conservatives on both sides of Capitol Hill as both the Republican Study Committee (RSC) led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) in the House and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the Senate this week questioned the seriousness of the legislation and whether the substance matches the talking points of actually being effectively tough on China.
The RSC this week released a memorandum, titled “The Endless Frontier Act: Big Spending, Little Results.” In it, the RSC notes that the bill “would authorize the National Science Foundation (NSF) to spend $100 billion over five years, funding efforts to spur technological innovation, mainly through universities, and authorize the Department of Commerce to spend $10 billion over five years on regional technology development.” The memo aims to “outline concerns that conservative members may have with the bill, including ways it leaves America vulnerable to Communist China.”
Rubio, meanwhile, on Tuesday delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate raising concerns with the legislation for being well-intentioned but ineffective. Rubio called the Endless Frontier Act a “nod” in the “direction” of America having “a strong foundation through targeted and sustained federal funding for American research and development.” But he raised concerns about the lack of funding oversight for the National Science Foundation and the lack of safeguards against Chinese espionage on this front. He also, in the speech, said a “real China bill” would communicate to the Chinese Communist Party that the United States does not seek military confrontation but is prepared to defend against any provocation — something the Endless Frontier Act does not do — which is a not-too-subtle suggestion that this legislation is feckless in Rubio’s mind, at least in its current state.
But the politics of the Endless Frontier Act are hardly the only interesting things about this development. This also comes on the heels of a massive screwup by China on the space front whereby debris from its latest rocket launch crashed unplanned all over the eastern hemisphere. In other words, if Cantwell’s measure succeeds and Bezos’s company ends up winning that contract, the American Democrats’ answer to Chinese Communist Party incompetence with regard to space exploration will potentially be corruption, instead of competence — exactly the opposite message intended by those who crafted the legislation’s original language and spirit.
Cantwell’s office has not replied to a request for comment from Breitbart News for this story, nor have staff for the Senate Commerce Committee which she chairs.
Cantwell’s Senate Commerce Committee is considering, among other bills, the Endless Frontier Act on Wednesday, per a committee announcement. The legislation is supposed to be a bill countering the Chinese Communist Party. The Endless Frontier Act has wide bipartisan support with everyone from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and many other Democrats to many Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Roy Blunt (R-MO) serving as original cosponsors of the legislation in that chamber. The House companion version of the bill has similarly broad bipartisan support.
The bill is heading for consideration by the full U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday where it will go through what is called a “markup.” At the so-called markup, senators read the bill in the committee and consider amendments to it before voting on the legislation. Assuming the legislation passes the committee — to do so a majority of committee members need to support it — it would then head to the full U.S. Senate for consideration.
During the markup process in committee, Chairwoman Cantwell intends to offer an amendment longer than 150 pages. On pages 14 through 16 of the amendment from Cantwell, there is a section that references space programs and specifically the Artemis program and, even more precisely, the human landing system contracts.
“Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the administrator shall maintain competitiveness within the human landing system program by funding design, development, testing, and evaluation for not fewer than 2 entities,” the amendment from Cantwell reads.
What that means, in other words, is that Cantwell’s amendment would require NASA to award two such HLS contracts — instead of just the one NASA awarded to Musk’s SpaceX.
Later, further down on page 16 of Cantwell’s amendment, is the price tag for adding an extra company to also do an HLS contract in addition to the SpaceX one already in execution: “In addition to amounts otherwise appropriated for the Artemis program, for fiscal years 2021 through 2026, there is authorized to be appropriated not less than $10,032,000,000 to NASA to carry out the human landing system program.”
What that means is that Cantwell’s extra contract stuffed in this amendment would cost more than $10 billion.
Blue Origin’s headquarters are in Cantwell’s home state in Kent, Washington, so if Cantwell’s proposal were to make it through — its chances, because she is the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee which is marking up the legislation on Wednesday, are high — and Blue Origin was to win the second contract after losing that first one to SpaceX, it would possibly be a massive boon to her home state.