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Blue Origin wins NASA contract to compete with SpaceX's Starship on the Moon

Agency selects Jeff Bezos' company as second Artemis provider

Design of a module on the lunar surface

Blue Origin won a major contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday to develop a manned module to take astronauts to the lunar surface later this decade. Space company Blue Origin won the contract on Friday, May 19, 2023, to develop a manned lunar lander to carry astronauts later this decade under the Artemis program. Last year, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion under the HLS contract, exercising an option to purchase a second manned demonstration landing from the company. That brings the total value of SpaceX's HLS contract to $4.2 billion through 2027. To date, NASA has paid about $1.8 billion to Elon Musk's company under the HLS, according to federal filings.

The team led by Blue Origin – and which includes Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics – outperformed Dynetics, which is owned by Leidos. Other proposals were expected, but likely won't be revealed until NASA releases documents explaining its selection process. Known as the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) program, the competition was effectively a second-chance contest that the agency organized after SpaceX of Elon Musk was the only winner of the first crew landing contract in 2021.

Here is the official information from the American space agency:

“To develop a manned landing system for the agency's Artemis V mission to the Moon, NASA selected Blue Origin of Kent, Washington. Through Artemis, NASA will explore the Moon further than ever before, making more scientific discoveries and preparing for future astronaut missions to Mars. Blue Origin will design, develop, test and verify its Blue Moon lander to meet manned landing system requirements for recurring astronaut expeditions to the lunar surface, including docking with the Gateway, a space station where crew transfers on lunar orbit. In addition to design and development work, the contract includes an unmanned demonstration mission to the surface ahead of a manned demonstration on the Artemis V mission in 2029.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

"Today we are excited to announce that Blue Origin will build a landing system as the second supplier to take Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface," said agency administrator Bill Nelson. “We are in the golden age of human spaceflight, made possible by NASA's commercial and international partnerships. Together, we are making an investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way for the first astronauts to land on Mars.” For the Artemis V mission, the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket will launch four astronauts into lunar orbit aboard the Orion spacecraft. Once Orion docks with Gateway, two astronauts will transfer to the Blue Origin lander for a week-long trip to the Moon's South Pole region, where they will conduct science and exploration activities.

Adding another landing system partner to the Artemis program will increase competition, reduce costs for taxpayers, support a regular cadence of lunar landings, further invest in the lunar economy, and help NASA achieve its goals on and around the Moon in preparation for the future . The agency previously contracted with SpaceX to demonstrate an initial manned landing system for the Artemis III mission. Under that contract, it also instructed SpaceX to develop its design to meet requirements for sustainable exploration and to demonstrate a lander on Artemis IV. As a result of the contract with Blue Origin to demonstrate on Artemis V a lander that meets the same sustainable landing requirements, including features to increase crew size,

By supporting the industry's development of innovative moon landing systems concepts and designs, the agency will help increase access to space for the benefit of all. "Having two distinct lunar lander designs, with different approaches to how they address mission needs, provides more robustness and ensures a regular cadence of moon landings," said Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System Program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “This competitive approach drives innovation, lowers costs and invests commercial resources to increase business opportunities that can serve other customers and promote a lunar economy.”

The agency issued the solicitation, known as Appendix P, for its second Announcement of Next Space Technology for Broad Exploration Partnerships (Next-STEP2 BAA), in September 2022, as part of the ongoing development of advanced exploration technologies, capabilities and concepts. space.”


The first program, called the Human Landing System (HLS), gave SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract to develop a variation of its Starship rocket for the Artemis missions. Prior to the HLS award, NASA was expected to choose two winners, but the budget at the time and SpaceX's more affordable offering resulted in a single winner. Both the HLS and SLD are part of the program to land astronauts on the Moon, with the agency hoping to begin flying crews to the surface in the coming years. In December, the agency completed the first Artemis mission, which had no people on board, flying its Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft around the Moon for the first time.

SpaceX's outright victory for the HLS contract led to intense federal protests from Blue Origin. Bezos' company first denounced the award as "flawed" in a challenge through the Office of Government Accountability, and ultimately sued the agency in court after the GAO denied the company's protest.

The lawsuit has led to disputes among the billionaires, with Blue Origin calling SpaceX's Starship an "immensely complex and high-risk" approach, referring to criticisms leveled by NASA officials when evaluating the company's HLS offering. A month before the lawsuit, Bezos personally offered to cover $2 billion in agency costs over two years in exchange for a moon landing contract. NASA has not publicly responded to the offer, even after Bezos increased the proposal during court discussions to cover "more than $3 billion" in private funding. As the trial took place, Musk got involved and declared "you can't blast your way to the moon, no matter how good your lawyers are".

Blue Origin's lawsuit suspended work on the HLS contract for much of 2021 before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in favor of the agency, clearing it and its employees' decisions of wrongdoing.

Last year, Administrator Bill Nelson explained the reasoning behind a second tender process to add another privately built lunar module, saying, "competition is critical to our success." “We can leverage that money by working with a commercial industry, and through competition, lower those costs for the agency,” Nelson said during Senate testimony in 2022.

SpaceX continued to develop its Starship rocket in the meantime. The company tried in April to reach space with the vehicle for the first time. Musk recently estimated that he will spend about $2 billion on spacecraft development this year and expects the company to reach orbit with its next launch.

The Artemis program was initiated by the Trump administration and adopted by President Biden, giving NASA a continuity of purpose it lacked in previous decades. In recent weeks, Administrator Nelson has warned, however, that if negotiations over federal spending result in budget cuts, as some are proposing, there could be significant disruptions to lunar missions as well as other programs.

Speaking at an event on Capitol Hill on Thursday alongside astronauts, Nelson said that "this kind of cutback would be devastating for NASA, for our programs and for what is being presented today - a team that is taking us back." to the moon after half a century.” Moon landings have been a priority for Blue Origin and one of Bezos' passions. He said watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon in 1969 was a "seminal moment" for him. Blue Origin appeared to be the favorites for Artemis' first landing contract, as they made the most money in the preliminary round.


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