NASA selects Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for the Artemis Moon Mission

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

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

The mission, Artemis V, is another important part of NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to the moon as part of an effort to explore the Antarctic region. Astronauts are scheduled to land on the Moon in a vehicle built by SpaceX for the Artemis III and IV missions.

John Colouris, vice president of Blue Origin Lunar Transport, said the company is contributing “north” of NASA’s contract price to the development effort, and that it, not NASA, will absorb any cost overruns. In the past, some members of Congress have complained about giving Blue Origin taxpayer money, given Mr. Bezos’ wealth.

“We want more competition,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during the announcement Friday at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It means you have reliability. You have backups.”

The second lander “also helps us have a more diversified industrial base, and that will help us drive innovation in the future,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s Human Landing System program manager.

Winning the contract could start a promising year of recovery for Blue Origin after a number of delays and setbacks — including the failure of one of its New Shepard vehicles, which travel into space but not into orbit, during a launch last September that carried tests. But no passengers. Blue Origin has identified the cause and hopes to resume New Shepard flights involving space tourists and science cargo later this year.

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

Blue Origin may also provide some glimpses of New Glenn, a much larger rocket for launching payloads into orbit.

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

“The feeling is absolutely amazing,” Mr. Colouris said. “This is the first step, though. We have a lot more to do before we successfully land and bring back the astronauts.”

Designed to fit within the 23-foot-wide diameter of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, the Blue Moon probe will weigh more than 45 metric tons when filled with fuel.

For Artemis V, the probe 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. Then they will transfer to the Blue Moon probe to stay near the south pole of the moon for about a week.

After their visit to the Moon, the lander will lift off and return to the Gateway, and the Orion capsule will take all four astronauts back to Earth. The same probe can be used for several tasks.

Another Blue Origin spacecraft would be needed to transport liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from Earth to lunar orbit to refill the Blue Moon’s fuel tanks. Transporting fuels in the near-weightless environment of space, especially ultra-cold liquid hydrogen, is challenging and has not yet been demonstrated on a large scale.

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Mr. Colouris said Blue Origin will conduct an uncrewed demonstration flight of the lander in 2028, a year before it will be used by astronauts.

“We fully expect to meet NASA’s schedule,” Mr. Collores said.

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

The Artemis V mission was Mr. Bezos’ company’s second attempt to land on the moon. In 2021, Blue Origin and Dynetics are disappointed when NASA is awarded a $2.9 billion firm contract to build the giant Starship that will land astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than half a century.

Both companies objected to the decision, especially since NASA officials had originally intended to award two contracts.

This would have paralleled the successful efforts of NASA handing over to private companies the transportation of cargo and crew to the International Space Station. But NASA officials said at the time there wasn’t enough money in their budget for a second lander. SpaceX’s $2.9 billion bid was the lowest yet. The proposed Blue Origin design had a price tag of $6 billion, and the design submitted by Dynetics was even more expensive.

The Federal Government Accountability Office dismissed both companies’ protests. Then Blue Origin sued in federal court and lost again.

Last September, after winning a bigger budget from Congress, NASA announced a competition for a second rover on the Moon. Dynetics and Blue Origin have decided to compete again, although there have been some changes in the companies involved in the effort. Northrop Grumman, which was part of the original Blue Origin proposal, has turned to the Dynetics team.

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Blue Origin has added Boeing to its team; Astrobotic, a small Pittsburgh company developing robotic lunar landing vehicles; and Honeybee Robotics, an aerospace technology company that Blue Origin bought last year.

The design of the spacecraft has also changed, adding fuel transportation in space.

But she won’t get to the moon for a while.

SpaceX’s initial contract was for $2.9 billion to provide the probe for the first moon landing during Artemis III, which is currently scheduled for late 2025 but will likely drop to 2026 or later. In November, NASA exercised a $1.15 billion option in that contract to SpaceX to also provide a lander for Artemis IV, a mission 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 can also purchase Blue Moon flights. “We have a number of interested entities,” said Mr. Collores.

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