NASA puts Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX on the list for lunar lander development program

Alan Boyle
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander, equipped with an ascent module built by Lockheed Martin. (Blue Origin Illustration via NASA)

NASA has selected teams led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to develop lunar landing systems capable of putting astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024.

“We want to be able to go to the moon, but we want to be a customer,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters today during a teleconference. “We want to drive down the costs, we want to increase the access, we want to have our partners have customers that are not just us, so they compete on cost and innovation, and just bring capabilities that we’ve never had before.”

Fixed-price contracts totaling $967 million will go to the three corporate teams over the next 10 months to flesh out their proposals for lunar landing systems that would carry astronauts to and from the lunar surface:

  • For its Blue Moon lunar landing system, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, based in Kent, Wash., assembled a “national team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The concept makes use of elements from Lockheed Martin’s Orion capsule for the lander’s ascent module. Northrop Grumman will provide the transfer module for the lander system, which can be launched with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket or United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Blue Origin’s team will get $579 million.
  • Alabama-based Dynetics is developing a single-structure landing system that provides both ascent and descent capabilities, and would launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Dynetics’ team of 25 partners includes Sierra Nevada Corp., Draper and Thales Alenia Space Italy. Dynetics’ team will get $253 million.
  • California-based SpaceX is offering its Starship spacecraft, to be launched atop the Super Heavy rocket. SpaceX will get $135 million.

Next year, NASA will assess the resulting concepts and select which landing systems will get further support for initial demonstration missions, leading to regular procurement for lunar commercial services. It’s conceivable that all three teams will get NASA’s go-ahead for demonstrations

The mission profile for the first lunar landing currently calls for astronauts to be launched in an Orion capsule atop NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, and to transfer to the landing system for the descent to the moon’s surface.

NASA is planning to assemble a Gateway space platform in lunar orbit over the next few years, but Bridenstine said the first landing mission won’t rely on having the Gateway ready by that time. “We believe that getting to the moon by 2024 does not require the Gateway. … In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s not likely that we will use the Gateway for the 2024 mission,” he said.

The teams were selected based on technical and management ratings. Boeing, which has faced technical difficulties with its CST-100 Starliner space taxi and its work on the Space Launch System, proposed a landing system but was not selected. A Texas-based space venture called Vivace also submitted a proposal that lost out.

During the teleconference, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk expressed his appreciation to NASA for supporting Starship, which is under development for trips to Mars as well as the moon.

“I think we’ve got the potential for an incredibly exciting future in space, with a base on the moon and ultimately sending people and having a self-sustaining city on Mars,” Musk said.

An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Starship on the surface of the moon. (SpaceX Illustration)

Kim Doering, Dynetics’ vice president for space systems, said “we are all looking forward to helping to achieve the 2024 goal of returning U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface, and we’re really excited about enabling a long-term commercial lunar economy.”

“It is a great day for Dynetics, it’s a great day for NASA and a great day for the country,” she said.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith seconded that sentiment, saying today was a “truly historic day.”

“Going to the moon is the reason why we got into this business, and we couldn’t be more excited about that,” Smith said. “We’re all very fortunate to humbly stand on the shoulders of Apollo.”

Bridenstine has repeatedly noted the parallels between the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s and NASA’s current moon initiative, which is called the Artemis program in a nod to the mythological sister of Apollo. Today the NASA chief recalled that the Apollo program took place during a time of turmoil over such issues as civil rights and the Vietnam War.

An artist’s conception shows the Dynetics Human Landing System on the lunar surface. (Dynetics Illustration)

“In the midst of that most difficult time in American history, we were able to go to the moon,” Bridenstine said. “Here we are, all these years later, in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a lot of concern, a lot of fear. And yet this little agency is still moving forward in a very meaningful way, and we’re doing it with our commercial partners.”

Bridenstine said a number of NASA employees have been infected with coronavirus, “and in fact we’ve lost lives because of it at the agency.” But he didn’t expect the pandemic to affect the space agency’s timetable or Congress’ support for a 2024 lunar landing.

“We have a budget request that reflects that priority, and I have not heard anybody suggest that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to cut NASA on this,” he said.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 10:29 a.m. PT April 30.

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