December 8, 2023

In a second attempt, Jeff Bezos and his rocket company won a contract to send NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.

NASA announced on Friday that it had awarded a contract to Mr. Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, to provide a lunar lander for a mission to the moon currently scheduled to launch in 2029.

The Artemis V mission is another key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon as part of an effort to explore the Antarctic region. Astronauts will land on the moon in vehicles built by SpaceX for the Artemis III and IV missions.

“We want more competition,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Friday at an event at NASA headquarters in Washington. “That means you have reliability. You have backup.”

NASA will pay Blue Origin $3.4 billion, and John Couluris, Blue Origin’s vice president of lunar transportation, said the company is funding development work far beyond that amount.

Winning the contract could kick off a promising bounce-back year for Blue Origin after numerous delays and setbacks. These include a failure of one of the New Shepard launch vehicles last September during a launch with an experiment but no passengers on board, which went to space but didn’t reach orbit. Blue Origin has identified the cause and hopes to resume New Shepard flights later this year involving space tourists and science cargo.

Some hardware made by Blue Origin may end up being used in orbital missions in the coming months. The company makes engines for the booster stage of the Vulcan rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Blue Origin could also give the public a glimpse of New Glenn, a larger rocket that can launch payloads into orbit.

For the lunar lander contract, Blue Origin teamed up with other aerospace companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, beating out a second team led by the Huntsville, Alabama-based defense firm Dynetics. Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos in Reston, Va., enlisted the help of aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman.

Blue Origin and Dynetics emerged as disappointing underdogs in 2021, when NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a variant of its giant Starship, the first time in more than half a century that spaceflight will be brought to space. send crew to the moon.

The companies protested the decision, not least because NASA officials originally aimed to award two contracts.

This will run in parallel with NASA’s successful efforts to hand over the work of transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station to private companies. Agency officials say competition helps keep costs down and provides redundancy if things go wrong.

But in awarding only one award to SpaceX, NASA officials said there was not enough money in their budget to build a second lander. SpaceX’s $2.9 billion bid was the lowest to date. Blue Origin’s proposed design has a price tag of $6 billion, while Dynetics’ offer is priced even higher.

The federal Government Accountability Office rejected the companies’ protest. Blue Origin then sued in federal court, but again lost.

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 has been some restructuring of the companies involved. Northrop Grumman was part of Blue Origin’s original proposal and later moved to the Dynetics team.

Blue Origin joined its team at Boeing; Astrobotic, a small Pittsburgh-based company that is developing robotic lunar landers; and Honeybee Robotics, a space technology company that Blue Origin acquired last year.

The Blue Origin lander, designed to send two astronauts to the Moon’s south polar region, won’t be able to land on the Moon for quite some time.

SpaceX’s original $2.9 billion contract to provide landers for the first moon landing during Artemis III is currently scheduled for late 2025 but could be pushed back to 2026 or later. In November, NASA exercised a $1.15 billion option on that contract to have SpaceX also provide a lander for Artemis IV, a mission slated for 2028.

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