Blue Origin, the Space Company founded by businessman Jeff Bezos, has secured on Friday a significant contract from NASA, positioning itself as a competitor to Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the race to deliver Astronauts to the Moon.
The contract, awarded by NASA under its Artemis Program, tasks Blue Origin with developing a crewed Lunar Lander for future missions to the Moon’s surface, starting from Artemis V in 2029. The project, estimated to cost over $7 billion, includes a contract worth just over $3.4 billion from NASA, with Blue Origin committing additional funds beyond the contract’s value.
The Announcement of Winner
The announcement of Blue Origin’s victory was accompanied by statements from key figures, emphasizing the significance of the endeavor.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed the agency’s ambitious goal of landing humans on Mars, drawing parallels to President Kennedy’s challenge to reach the Moon. Jeff Bezos, in a tweet, expressed his honor in partnering with NASA and his commitment to landing astronauts on the moon with the intention of establishing a sustained presence.
Honored to be on this journey with @NASA to land astronauts on the Moon — this time to stay. Together, we’ll be solving the boil-off problem and making LOX-LH2 a storable propellant combination, pushing forward the state of the art for all deep space missions. #Artemis… pic.twitter.com/Y0zDhnp1qX— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) May 19, 2023
The winning proposal, spearheaded by Blue Origin, involved a collaboration with several prominent aerospace companies, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics.
Together, this team outperformed a proposal led by Leidos-owned Dynetics. Additional proposals may have been submitted, but NASA has yet to release documents detailing its selection process.
“These vehicles are powered by LOX-LH2. The high-specific impulse of LOX-LH2 provides a dramatic advantage for high-energy deep space missions.“
“Through this contract, we will [make] high-performance LOX-LH2 a storable propellant combination [and] develop and fly solar-powered 20-degree Kelvin cryocoolers and the other technologies required to prevent LOX-LH2 boil-off.“—Blue Origin Statement
Blue Moon is designed to fit into a seven-meter payload fairing of New Glenn. The Company plans TWO uncrewed test flight of the lander in 2024 and 2025, and a number of test launches and landings before that.
The competition leading to this contract, known as the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) Program, was organized as a second chance for companies after SpaceX secured the initial crew lander contract in 2021.
SpaceX was awarded nearly $3 billion under the Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop its Starship Rocket variant for Artemis missions. Initially, NASA planned to select two winners for the HLS contract, but due to budget constraints, only SpaceX emerged as the sole winner.
Both the HLS and SLD programs are integral parts of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. NASA successfully completed the first Artemis Mission in December, using its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft (partially built in Europe in collaboration with ESA), albeit without human Crew Members.
Litigations and Shadows
The path to Blue Origin’s victory was not without hurdles and controversy. Following SpaceX’s sole win for the HLS contract, Blue Origin lodged federal protests, challenging the award.
Blue Origin accused the selection process of being flawed, and subsequently sued NASA after the Government Accountability Office denied their protest. The legal battle sparked heated exchanges between Bezos and Musk, with Blue Origin criticizing SpaceX’s Starship as a complex and high-risk approach.
Bezos even offered to cover NASA costs totaling $2 billion over two years, a proposal that was not publicly addressed by the agency. Eventually, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled in NASA’s favor, affirming the agency’s decisions and clearing any wrongdoing.
A Second Lander Competition
The addition of another privately-built lunar lander through a second bidding process was seen as a means to promote competition and reduce costs.
According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, “competition is crucial for success“, allowing NASA to collaborate with the commercial industry and leverage funds effectively.
SpaceX has been making significant strides in the development of its Starship Rocket, aiming to reach Orbit with the vehicle for the first time in April. Elon Musk has estimated that SpaceX’s Starship development will cost approximately $2 billion this year and anticipates achieving Earth Orbit with its next launch.
As part of the HLS contract, NASA has already awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion to secure a second crewed demonstration landing, bringing the total value of SpaceX’s contract to $4.2 billion through 2027. Federal records indicate that NASA has paid out approximately $1.8 billion to SpaceX for HLS-related work thus far.