Science and Exploration

NASA Picks Blue Origin As Its Second Lunar Lander Provider

By Keith Cowing
May 19, 2023
Filed under , , , ,
NASA Picks Blue Origin As Its Second Lunar Lander Provider
Artist’s concept of the Blue Moon lander.
Image credit: Blue Origin

NASA announced today (May 19) that Blue Origin is the winner of the second Artemis lunar lander contract today. Initially, NASA had hoped to fund more than one lander concept for the Artemis program — the logic being similar to how NASA approached commercial crew and cargo service for the International Space Station. In both ISS cases, the redundant approach adopted for ISS has proved to be a wise one.

The first lunar lander contract was awarded to SpaceX in 2021. The SpaceX contract is for an initial lunar lander capability based on its Starship architecture. There will be several test landings — as well as other Starship tests before it is certified for carrying crews to the lunar surface. NASA leaned into this decision by both accepting an additional amount of programmatic and financial risk while SpaceX picked up a much larger portion of the overall risk than has normally been the case on a big government contract. Given that there has only been one full-up launch attempt of the Starship system, and with a notional plan to land on the Moon within a few years, the pressure is certainly on SpaceX.

However, SpaceX has been able to pick up the slack in the past. When Cygnus’ launch vehicle Antares experienced a launch failure, SpaceX was able to complete the job with its Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX even launched a Cygnus flight for its competitor — thus demonstrating how this redundancy really was adaptable to unexpected scenarios. When Boeing’s Starliner encountered problems SpaceX was able to cover for it with additional Dragon flights.

Budgetary limitations forced NASA to go with the SpaceX concept for cost and technical reasons. That singular, zero-redundancy approach did not sit well with many in NASA and in Congress. Blue Origin, eager to get its foot in the door, filed a lawsuit, and hearings were held.  Meanwhile, SLS delays and delayed phasing of the Gateway systems forced a rethink as to how to accomplish at least one lunar landing within something similar to the original Artemis program plan.

After the dust settled on the single contract award to SpaceX, a second procurement was eventually issued for future landing systems — one wherein SpaceX was not allowed to bid. This served to level the lunar playing field to some extent. Two bids were eventually received by NASA — one from a team led by Blue Origin, which includes Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Honeybee Robotics, and Astrobotic, and another led by Dynetics.

The Blue Origin lunar lander design — under the overall program name “Blue Moon” — came with a $3.4 billion price tag. The lander will be 16 meters tall and have an empty weight of 16 metric tons. It can deliver 20 metric tons to the lunar surface if the plan is to reuse the lander, or 30 metric tons if the lander stays on the surface permanently. Blue Moon will be delivered to lunar orbit unfurled, where a dedicated refueling spacecraft will top off its tanks for the landing.

Blue Moon will be launched by Blue Origin’s yet-to-be-flown New Glenn Mega booster, which is somewhat similar in capability to SpaceX’s Starship system. As such, NASA is accepting the risk of relying on a new, untested launch system.

Indeed, both NASA and Blue Origin were somewhat shy about getting into the particulars of the selection at the press briefing where the contract was announced. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson made a point of mentioning that these novel public-private partnerships are how NASA is going to do things going forward. He also emphasized the agency’s focus on sustainability as it pursues routine operations on the lunar surface with at least one landing per year.

The interesting aspect of this approach is that the landers — SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s — are owned by these companies rather than NASA itself. SpaceX already has a myriad of plans for Starship — including a crewed “Dear Moon” fly-around mission. When asked if Blue Origin had commercial ideas, their representative said Blue Origin had indeed been approached by commercial interests and that these ideas were certainly being considered.

Now the focus shifts toward the next Artemis Mission, Artemis II, which will fly around the moon with a crew of four who have been making the rounds in Washington DC this week. Bill Nelson said that he had been assured that the mission was still on track for the Fall of 2024. The first Artemis landing mission — Artemis III — is supposedly penciled in for December 2025 but will likely slip into 2026.

As such, NASA will be closely watching both SpaceX and Blue Origin for the next several years as they prove that their immense launch vehicles are indeed going to be up to the task — and that their landers are capable of landing humans on the Moon and then (eventually) returning them safely to Earth.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.