NASA Picks Blue Origin’s Blue Moon Lander for Artemis V Mission

On his second try, Jeff Bezos and his rocket company won a contract to fly NASA astronauts to the moon.

NASA announced Friday that it had awarded a contract to Mr. Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, to provide a lunar lander for a lunar mission scheduled for launch in 2029. NASA agreed to pay $3.4 billion for the 50-meter vehicle. feet tall. spacecraft, which is called the Blue Moon and can transport four astronauts to the surface of the moon.

The mission, Artemis V, is another critical piece of NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts back to the moon as part of an effort to explore the south polar region. The astronauts will land on the moon in a vehicle built by SpaceX for the Artemis III and IV missions.

John Couluris, Blue Origin’s vice president of lunar transport, said the company was contributing “well in excess” of NASA’s contract price to the development effort and that it, not NASA, would absorb any cost overruns. In the past, some members of Congress have complained about providing taxpayer money to Blue Origin, given Bezos’s wealth.

“We want more competition,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said during Friday’s announcement at NASA headquarters in Washington. “It means you have reliability. You have backups.

Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s human landing system program manager, said the second lander “also helps us with a more diversified industrial base, and that will help us advance innovation going forward.”

The contract award could kick off a promising year of recovery for Blue Origin after a series of delays and setbacks, including the failure of one of its New Shepard vehicles, which travels into space but not into orbit, during a launch last September. who carried out experiments. but no passengers. Blue Origin has identified the cause and hopes to resume New Shepard flights with space tourists and science payload later this year.

And some of the hardware made by Blue Origin could finally be used on an orbital mission in the coming months. The company built engines for the booster stage of the Vulcan rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Blue Origin could also provide some public glimpses of New Glenn, a much larger rocket that will launch payloads into orbit.

For the lunar lander contract, Blue Origin, in collaboration with other aerospace companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, beat out a second team led by Dynetics, a defense company based in Huntsville, Alabama.

“The feeling is absolutely fantastic,” said Couluris. “However, this is Step 1. We have a lot to do before we land and successfully return the astronauts.”

The Blue Moon lander is designed to fit inside the 23-foot-wide diameter of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, and will weigh more than 45 metric tons when packed with propellants.

For Artemis V, the lander will first dock at Gateway, a small outpost in orbit around the moon. Four astronauts will travel to Gateway in another spacecraft, NASA’s Orion capsule. They will then transfer to the Blue Moon lander for a stay near the lunar south pole that will last about a week.

After their visit to the moon, the lander will take off and return to Gateway, and the Orion capsule will carry the four astronauts back to Earth. The same lander could be used for multiple missions.

A second Blue Origin spacecraft will be needed to transport liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from Earth to lunar orbit to refill Blue Moon’s propellant tanks. The transfer of propellants in the near-weightless space environment, especially ultracold liquid hydrogen, is complicated and has yet to be demonstrated on a large scale.

Mr. Couluris said that Blue Origin will conduct an uncrewed demonstration flight of the lander in 2028, a year before it is used for astronauts.

“We hope to meet NASA’s schedule,” said Mr. Couluris.

Mr. Couluris said the lunar lander could also be configured to carry 30 metric tons of cargo instead of passengers, “to form the basis of habitats and other permanent infrastructure” on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission was the second bid by Bezos’s company to land on the moon. In 2021, Blue Origin and Dynetics were disappointed when NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion fixed contract to build a variation of their giant Starship vehicle that would take astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than half. century.

The two companies protested the decision, especially since NASA officials originally intended to award two contracts.

That would have paralleled the successful efforts of NASA handing over the transport of cargo and crew to the International Space Station to private companies. But NASA officials said at the time that there wasn’t enough money in their budget for a second lander. SpaceX’s $2.9 billion offer was the lowest offer by far. Blue Origin’s proposed design was priced at $6 billion, and the one offered by Dynetics was even more expensive.

The federal Government Accountability Office rejected the protests of the two companies. Blue Origin then sued in federal court and again lost.

Last September, after winning a bigger budget from Congress, NASA announced a competition for a second lunar lander. Dynetics and Blue Origin decided to compete again, although there was some confusion among the companies participating in the efforts. Northrop Grumman, which was part of the original Blue Origin proposal, moved over to the Dynetics team.

Blue Origin added Boeing to its team; Astrobotic, a small Pittsburgh company developing robotic lunar landers; and Honeybee Robotics, a space technology company that Blue Origin bought last year.

Spacecraft design also changed, adding propellant transfer in space.

But it won’t make it to the moon for a while.

SpaceX’s initial $2.9 billion contract was to provide the lander for the first moon landing during Artemis III, which is currently scheduled for late 2025 but is likely to be pushed back to 2026 or later. In November, NASA exercised a $1.15 billion option on that contract for SpaceX to also provide a lander for Artemis IV, a mission that is scheduled for 2028.

After Artemis V, NASA will be able to choose between SpaceX and Blue Origin designs for subsequent missions.

Eventually, companies and individuals outside of NASA could also purchase Blue Moon rides. “We have several entities that are interested,” Couluris said.