On the second try, Jeff Bezos and his rocket company win a contract to fly NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.
NASA announced Friday that it has awarded a contract to Blue Origin, which Bezos owns, to provide the Blue Moon lander for a lunar mission currently scheduled for launch in 2029.
The mission, Artemis V, is another core part of NASA’s Artemis program, which is 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.
“We want more competition,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during the Friday event at NASA Headquarters in Washington on Friday. “It means you have reliability. You have backups.”
NASA will pay Blue Origin $3.4 billion, and John Colouris, Blue Origin’s vice president of lunar transportation, said the company is contributing “north of that amount” to the development effort.
The contract win could usher in a promising rebound year for Blue Origin after a number of delays and setbacks. This includes the failure of one of its new Shepard vehicles, which was traveling to space but not to orbit, during a launch last September that carried experiments 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.
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 including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, beat out a second team led by Dynetics, a defense company based in Huntsville, Ala. It enlisted the help of aviation contractor Northrop Grumman with its bid.
Blue Origin and Dynetics were disappointed in 2021 when NASA awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to build a variant of 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. Agency officials said competition helps keep costs down and provides redundancy if something goes wrong.
But in awarding just one prize to SpaceX, NASA officials said 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 year, after winning a larger budget from Congress, NASA announced a competition for a second lunar lander. 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.
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 Blue Origin lander, designed to carry astronauts to the lunar south pole region, won’t be on the moon for long.
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.
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