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NASA selects Blue Origin to develop second Artemis lunar lander

Blue Origin Blue Moon lander
Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander will carry astronauts on the Artemis 5 mission, one year after an uncrewed test mission. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected Blue Origin to develop a lunar lander to transport astronauts on Artemis missions starting at the end of the decade.

At an event at NASA Headquarters May 19, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced that the agency chose a team led by Blue Origin, with participation from Boeing, Draper and Lockheed Martin, among others, to develop a lander called Blue Moon that will join already under development by SpaceX to transport astronauts between the lunar Gateway and the surface of the moon.

The value of the fixed-price award is $3.4 billion. John Couluris, Blue Origin program manager for the effort, said at the briefing that the company plans to invest “well north” of that amount to develop the lander.

The contract includes a demonstration landing on Artemis 5, currently scheduled for no earlier than late 2029, as well as an uncrewed test flight of the lander about one year earlier. Artemis 5 will be the third crewed landing of the Artemis lunar exploration campaign, after the Artemis 3 and 4 missions that will use SpaceX’s Starship.

Blue Origin was one of two bidders, with a team led by Dynetics submitting the other bid. NASA officials at the briefing did not disclose the rationale for selecting Blue Origin over Dynetics, saying it will be released in a separate source selection statement.

The Blue Moon lander is a revised version of earlier designs released by the company. The lander is 16 meters tall and designed to fit inside the seven-meter payload fairing of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. It has a dry mass of 16 metric tons, and more than 45 metric tons when filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants.

Keeping those cryogenic propellants from boiling off is a key enabling technology for Blue Moon. “This is a great example of the public-private partnership we have with NASA,” Couluris said.  The company has been funding internally “zero-boiloff” technology for some time, such as a cryocooler that operates at a temperature of 20 kelvins.

“We want to make hydrogen a storable propellant,” he said. “If you can make hydrogen storable, then you can do a number of things.” That includes, he said, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from lunar resources to fuel landers.

Besides the version designed to carry astronauts, Blue Origin is planning a cargo version of the lander. It will be able to transport up to 20 metric tons to the lunar surface and be able to return to lunar orbit, or 30 metric tons on one-way missions.

Blue Origin is working with Lockheed Martin, which will build a “cislunar transporter” spacecraft, carrying propellant from low Earth orbit to the near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon where the lander is located. That vehicle will refuel the lander, which is designed to be used on multiple lander missions.

There are several other members of what Blue Origin calls its “National Team” for the lander. Draper will provide guidance, navigation and control systems as well as training and simulation. Astrobotic will handle cargo accommodations, Honeybee Robotics will provide cargo offloading capabilities and Boeing will contribute the docking system.

“We’ve got a strong group of very motivated, very humble yet proud people,” Couluris said, including those who worked on the company’s original lander proposal. “The feeling is absolutely fantastic. I’m proud of this team, across the entire National Team.”

Path to selecting Blue Moon

NASA announced the Sustaining Lunar Development effort in March 2022 to support work on a second lander, joining SpaceX’s Starship that the agency selected in April 2021 for its Human Landing System (HLS) program. Blue Origin and Dynetics, the two losing bidders in that competition, protested the award to the Government Accountability Office but had their protest rejected. Blue Origin later filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims, but lost the case.

NASA since when it announced SLD that the initiative was an effort to ensure competition in the overall HLS effort, addressing concerns raised by some members of Congress. “I promised competition, so here it is,” Nelson said at the time.

SpaceX was excluded from the SLD competition because of its existing HLS award, but NASA exercised what it called Option B in that award for a second mission that will demonstrate the greater performance required for SLD. NASA formally exercised that option in November, valued at $1.15 billion, bringing the total value of SpaceX’s HLS work to more than $4 billion.

After a Dec. 6 deadline for SLD proposals, both Blue Origin and Dynetics announced they were bidding. Blue Origin’s “National Team” included Lockheed Martin and Draper, who were part of Blue Origin’s original HLS bid. Northrop Grumman, who was part of the original Blue Origin bid, instead joined the team led by Dynetics.

Neither Blue Origin nor Dynetics disclosed details about their proposals at the time, although Dynetics released an illustration of its lander that looked similar to its earlier design. Both companies had received funding from NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Appendix N effort in September 2021 to mature technologies such as engines for their landers.

Both SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon will eventually compete for missions after Artemis 5 under services contracts, an arrangement similar to what NASA uses for cargo and crew missions to the space station. At the announcement, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said the agency was just starting planning for how it will acquire landers for those later missions.

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...