Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, will join NASA’s lunar lander program — competing against Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop spacecraft intended to ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface.
NASA announced Friday that Blue Origin will work to prepare its Blue Moon lander concept for a mission dubbed Artemis V, which is slated to take off as soon as 2028. Artemis V would be the third in a series of missions under NASA’s lunar program that’s expected to land humans on the moon.
Blue Origin will develop its lunar lander alongside partners Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics.
Altogether, the price tag for Blue Origin’s lunar lander development program is likely worth more than $7 billion. The contract is worth about $3.5 billion, according to Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development.
And “Blue Origin is contributing well north of $3.4 billion as part of this effort,” said John Couluris, the company’s vice president for lunar transportation, during a news briefing Friday.
“We want to establish permanence on the moon, and we want to ensure that we have consistent access to the moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson added. “So with that in mind, Blue Origin itself is contributing over 50% of the total effort to get to not only this mission but to ensure permanence.”
A sea change for lunar lander development
SpaceX was awarded the first lunar lander contract — worth $2.9 billion — in April 2021, setting up the company to develop a version of its forthcoming Starship spacecraft for NASA’s Artemis III mission. It’s expected to launch as early as 2025.
It’s not clear whether NASA and SpaceX will hit that deadline. Starship exploded last month after its inaugural test launch attempt.
Blue Origin has been fighting for a role in the Artemis lunar lander contracts — called Human Landing System — for years. After SpaceX was awarded its 2021 contract, Blue Origin sued the US government, saying NASA unfairly favored SpaceX and arguing that the space agency would be better served by funding both SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s plans to develop vehicles capable of landing on the moon.
A judge ultimately ruled against Blue Origin, though NASA later pledged to expand the number of companies with lunar lander contracts to two.
NASA said from the beginning that it hoped to have more than one company working to develop lunar landers capable of carrying humans. But after awarding a single-source contract to SpaceX, the space agency repeatedly cited costs as the reason. Congress allotted NASA about $2 billion less than it requested in fiscal year 2021.
But NASA received a small increase for the Human Landing System in fiscal year 2022 — $150 million more than it requested for the lunar landing program.
Still, NASA awarded SpaceX another contract option in November, giving the company a pathway to also provide the lunar lander for the Artemis IV mission, slated for 2027. That deal was valued at about $1.15 billion.
Friday’s announcement marks a sea change for the program, officially adding a second lunar landing provider to compete with SpaceX on missions beyond Artemis V.
Blue Origin’s Human Landing System plans
From the outset of the Human Landing System program, Blue Origin and SpaceX gave NASA two wildly different proposals for getting boots on the moon.
While SpaceX plans to use Starship, a gargantuan rocket and spacecraft system designed to function on its own, Blue Origin had a more straightforward plan to develop a lunar lander — similar to those used for the Apollo missions. Blue Origin’s lunar lander would ride as a payload on a separate rocket, while SpaceX’s Starship is its own self-contained system.
Functionally, however, Blue Moon would take on the same role as the spacecraft portion of SpaceX’s Starship.
For Artemis III, Starship would launch to the moon empty. It would rendezvous with NASA’s Orion crew capsule, which aims to carry astronauts to lunar orbit. After the astronauts transfer vehicles, Starship would handle the work of touching down on the moon’s surface, allowing astronauts to explore and then returning them to Orion in lunar orbit.
For Artemis IV, Starship would also dock with Gateway, a planned space station intended to orbit around the moon.
Both companies will be required to complete pathfinder missions — or test flights — before they can conduct such landings.