Bezos’s Blue Origin wins NASA moon lander contract

Blue Origin won a coveted NASA contract Friday to develop a spacecraft that would land humans on the surface of the moon, a major victory and redemption for Jeff Bezos’s space venture two years after it lost out on another, similar contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

This time, Blue Origin beat Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos, the defense contractor. The contract, worth $3.4 billion, is for NASA’s planned third human landing on the moon under its Artemis program. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

As of now, the landing using Blue Origin’s spacecraft, a four-legged lander 52 feet tall that it calls Blue Moon, would occur in 2029, following two crewed landings by SpaceX.

Under the Artemis program, NASA intends to eventually sponsor a regular cadence of astronauts to the moon. But instead of going to the equatorial region of the moon, as was done during the Apollo era of the 1960s and ’70s, it is aiming for the lunar south pole, where there is water in the form of ice in the permanently shadowed craters.

The Artemis program was started by the Donald Trump administration but has been embraced by President Biden, giving NASA a continuity of purpose that it had lacked in previous decades. In recent weeks, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has warned, however, that if negotiations over federal spending result in budget cuts, as some are proposing, there could be significant disruptions to the moon missions as well as other programs.

Speaking at an event on Capitol Hill Thursday while flanked by astronauts, Nelson said that, “the kind of cuts that you have seen talked about would be devastating to NASA, to our programs and what you’re being presented with today — a crew that is taking us back to the moon after half a century.”

Speaking at the announcement Friday morning, Nelson said that the space agency has “big goals for our Artemis program, about a mission a year to the lunar surface for stays for astronauts up to 30 days. And today’s announcement is about maintaining that cadence.”

Moon landings have been a priority of Blue Origin and one of Bezos’s lifelong passions. He has said that watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon in 1969 was a “seminal moment” for him.

Blue Origin appeared to be the favorite for the first Artemis landing contract because it had obtained the most money in a preliminary round. But in 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract for the first human landing of the Artemis program, a mission known as Artemis III that is scheduled for 2025 but probably will be delayed.

The contract award marked a huge victory for Musk and SpaceX and a triumph over Dynetics and Blue Origin, which at the time had assembled a “national team” for the effort that included Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper.

It also set off legal challenges that roiled the normally staid world of NASA contracting.

Blue Origin, whose bid of $6 billion was more than twice that of SpaceX’s, protested to the Government Accountability Office, as did Dynetics. Both lost. Blue Origin then filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and lost that, too. As a last resort, Bezos wrote an open letter to Nelson offering to sweeten the pot by waiving $2 billion in development costs, an offer that was rebuffed because the contract had already been awarded.

On Friday, John Couluris, Blue Origin’s lunar lander program manager, said the company would invest “well north of $3.4 billion” of its money into the program. Before the first human landing, the company would “be landing an exact copy of that lander one year prior.” He added that there would also be “a number of test launches and landings that we’ll be releasing here soon.”

To get to the moon, Blue proposed a multi-step process. The lander would be launched directly to lunar orbit. A separate spacecraft, known as the cislunar transporter, to be built by Lockheed Martin, would refuel in Earth orbit, then meet up with the lander in lunar orbit to fuel it ahead of the flight to the surface of the moon.

In addition to flying crew members, the lander could come in a cargo version that would be capable of delivering as much as 30 metric tons to the lunar surface, he said.

After the initial award, SpaceX won another contract for the second crewed landing, Artemis IV, scheduled for 2028. SpaceX was not eligible for the contract awarded Friday because NASA wants to ensure that it has two providers to choose from for future missions.

Last year, NASA completed the Artemis I flight, the first launch of its Space Launch System rocket that sent the Orion crew capsule, without anyone onboard, around the moon. The next flight, Artemis II, is scheduled for late next year. It would carry four astronauts, NASA’s Reid Wiseman, Christina Koch and Victor Glover, as well as Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, in a mission around the moon as a precursor to a landing.

Because Orion isn’t able to land on the moon, the lunar landers would be launched separately and then meet with Orion in lunar orbit. NASA also plans to build a small space station known as Gateway that would orbit the moon and could be used as a staging point for astronauts.

For the current bid, Blue Origin’s national team changed a bit. Northrop Grumman switched to Dynetics’s team, and Blue Origin added Boeing, Astrobotic and Honeybee to its team, along with Lockheed Martin and Draper.

Bezos says the goal of Blue Origin — “Blue” for the “pale blue dot” that is Earth, “Origin” for where humanity began — is “millions of people living and working in space.” But it has yet to reach orbit with its New Glenn rocket, which would be used to launch the Blue Moon lander to the moon.

Blue Origin has flown suborbital flights that scratch the edge of space at just over 60 miles high, including one with Bezos himself. But those are with its New Shepard rocket, which suffered an engine failure last year on a flight without anyone onboard, and the company has yet to fly again. In a statement in March, it said it “expects to return to flight soon.”

Bezos has said that Blue Origin is “the most important work I’m doing.” And since he stepped down as CEO of Amazon in 2021, he’s focused more of his attention on Blue Origin and its various projects, which include building a commercial space station, as well as developing technologies to help humans live in space. Earlier this year, Blue Origin announced that it had made solar cells from a simulated lunar regolith, or moon dirt, as part of an effort to build energy sources on the moon.

On Twitter Friday, Bezos wrote that the company is “honored to be on this journey with @NASA to land astronauts on the Moon — this time to stay.”

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