Jeff Bezos unveils the Blue Moon lander in 2019. His company, Blue Origin, is protesting NASA's decision to award the HLS contract to SpaceX on the grounds that they would have bid lower if they knew NASA only had enough money for one vendor. Credit Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin is joining forces with three other major aerospace firms in a “national team” to develop a human lunar lander for NASA.

The company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, announced Oct. 22 his intent to work with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper on the unnamed lunar lander, the proposal for which they will submit to NASA for its Human Landing Services competition.

“I am excited to announce that we have put together a national team to go back to the moon,” he said during an onstage interview at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here, where he received an Excellence in Industry award. “We could not ask for better partners.”

Under the teaming arrangement, Blue Origin will serve as the prime contractor and provide a descent stage developed for its Blue Moon lunar lander unveiled earlier this year. Lockheed Martin will build a crew-rated ascent stage, leveraging systems it developed for the Orion spacecraft. Northrop Grumman will build a transfer stage to move the lander from the lunar Gateway to low lunar orbit, based on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Draper will provide guidance systems and avionics for the lander.

Executives with the four companies said the urgency required by the goal of returning humans to the moon within five years led them to team up rather than pursue separate lander projects. “A national priority requires a national team, so we brought who we feel is the best in class to the job,” Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said at a briefing with reporters.

Both Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin in particular had previously discussed plans to develop lunar landers on their own. Bezos hosted an event here in May to discuss plans for Blue Moon, including a “stretched” version of the descent stage large enough to host an ascent module for crewed missions. Lockheed Martin showed off its own designs for lunar landers in April that it said could be ready in time to meet a 2024 lunar landing goal.

“It’s not uncommon for all companies to lay out an architecture for an entire system,” Sherwood said. Given both the work required and the 2024 deadline, though, “the most sensible thing was to get together to try to deliver this for NASA.”

“All of us coming together and taking existing systems that the government’s already invested in, and we’ve already invested in, seemed like the best use of the American public’s money,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of commercial and civil space at Lockheed Martin.

Frank DeMauro, sector vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman, said the pairing made sense even without the 2024 deadline. “It became very clear to us, as we broke apart the architecture into these pieces, that was in the best interest of our team,” he said.

The lander, Sherwood said, is designed to “fully exploit the capabilities” of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, but could also fly on other vehicles. He declined to say how many New Glenn vehicles would be needed to send the complete lander system to the moon.

Proposals are due to NASA for the Human Landing Services competition Nov. 1. NASA previously stated it intends to select several proposals for initial studies, depending on available funding, and then select as many as two for full-scale development. The landers will be owned by the companies, with NASA purchasing landing services rather than the landers themselves. Sherwood said he expected a “very rapid selection” of proposals, with work starting as soon as January.

“It’s a relatively small community. We talk to each other all the time,” Sherwood said when asked how the companies decided to join forces. “When it became clear what NASA was going to ask for, to us it seemed like the most sensible approach.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...