Blue Origin wins $3.4B NASA contract to build lunar lander

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Alan Boyle
2023-05-19 12:13:20

An artist’s conception shows the integrated design for the Blue Moon lander. (Blue Origin Illustration)

An industry team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won a $3.4 billion NASA contract to provide a second type of landing system for crewed as well as uncrewed lunar landings.

The decision announced today settles a years-long controversy over how astronauts would get to the moon’s surface: SpaceX’s Starship system would be used for the first two crewed landings during the Artemis 3 and 4 missions, currently scheduled for as early as 2025 and 2028. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon system would be used for Artemis 5, currently set for 2029.

All those missions would target the moon’s south polar region, which is thought to be one of the moon’s most promising places for long-term settlement. Both types of landers could be available to NASA for missions beyond Artemis 5.

“Our partnership will only add to this golden age of human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the agency’s HQ in Washington, D.C. “Our work with commercial and international partners is keeping people fixated on the stars. … With today’s announcement, we are making an additional investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way to land the first humans on Mars.”

In a tweet, Bezos said he was “honored to be on this journey with NASA to land astronauts on the moon — this time to stay.”

Blue Origin’s main partners on what’s known as the National Team include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics (which is a Blue Origin subsidiary). The National Team beat out a bid from a team led by Alabama-based Dynetics, which also included Northrop Grumman (a former National Team partner).

Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a source selection statement that Blue Origin’s bid offered “abundant value” and provided the “least risky and most advantageous technical and management approaches” for meeting NASA’s goals, “at a substantially lower price.”

Nelson said Blue Origin’s team would be providing “skin in the game,” amounting to more than what the space agency would be paying. John Couluris, Blue Origin’s vice president for lunar permanence, said the company would be contributing “well north of $3.4 billion as part of this effort.”

The Blue Moon concept calls for an integrated lander that can be refueled in lunar orbit with liquid hydrogen and oxygen and reused for “multiple years and multiple missions,” Couluris said.

“We worked that in expressly for this proposal to provide large margins above the NASA requirements,” he said.

Astronauts would be sent to a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway in NASA’s Orion capsule, and then transfer to Blue Moon for the weeklong trip down to the surface and back.

Two uncrewed pathfinder test missions would be sent to the lunar surface, starting as early as next year, and the reusable lander would be tested for NASA in a crewless configuration one year before astronauts climb in for the first time for Artemis 5.

Couluris said the cargo version of the Blue Moon lander can put up to 20 metric tons on the lunar surface in its reusable configuration, and as much as 30 tons in an expendable configuration “to form the foundation of habitats and other permanent infrastructure.”

Lockheed Martin would provide a cislunar transporter that could travel between low Earth orbit and lunar orbit to refuel the Blue Moon system, Couluris said.

In addition to NASA, “a number of commercial entities” are interested in using Blue Moon’s capabilities, he said.

SpaceX was chosen as the sole provider for the Artemis program’s first lunar landing in 2021 due to budgetary limitations, sparking legal challenges from Blue Origin and Dynetics. Lawmakers pressed for NASA to support a second landing system — and Nelson agreed with that sentiment.

“We want more competition,” he said today. “We want two landers, and that’s better. It means you have reliability, you have backups. It benefits NASA. It benefits the American people. These are public-private partnerships. It’s the new way that we go to the moon.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the fact that NASA gave its nod to a team led by Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin “is great news for Washington state and our growing aerospace industry.”

“Our state has long been a leader in aerospace innovation and played a key role in so many of our nation’s milestones in space — so it’s fitting that Kent’s own Blue Origin was chosen to develop a human landing system for NASA’s Artemis 5 mission,” Murray said in a statement.

Blue Origin says its National Team includes several Washington state companies as partners and suppliers: Baker Manufacturing, Electroimpact, Janicki Industries, Machine & Fabrication, Machine Repair & Design, Machinists Inc., McNeeley MFG, Motion Industries and Specialty Metals Corp.

Couluris said the National Team’s members are feeling “absolutely fantastic.”

“I’m proud of this team, across the entire National Team,” he said. “This is step one, though. We have a lot to do before we successfully land and return astronauts. We’ve been working for some time, and we’re still ready to go.”

This report has been updated with information from NASA’s source selection statement.

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