Blue Moon will be NASA’s second lunar lander

NASA has chosen Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander for the Artemis 5 mission, following SpaceX's exclusivity in 2021
This render shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Lunar lander Blue Moon, built by Jeff BezosBlue Origin, will be the second system to carry NASA astronauts to the lunar surface. Announcement was made by space agency officials on May 19th last year. The consortium led by Blue Origin won the second contract for the Human Landing System (HLS) issued by NASA for the Artemis program. With the $3.4 billion award, Blue Origin will provide a second landing option for NASA astronauts, in addition to SpaceX‘s Starship, selected in 2021.

Blue Moon for Artemis 5

“An additional and different lander will help ensure the necessary hardware for a series of landings to further scientific and technological development on the lunar surface” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson during the press conference.

Representatives from Blue Origin stated that the lander, called Blue Moon, will be ready for the Artemis 5 mission landing scheduled for 2029. “We are testing complete landing systems and the entire architecture before any astronaut gets into the vehicle, and that will happen about a year before” said John Couluris, Blue Origin’s Vice President for Lunar Transportation, during the same press conference.

The Artemis 5 mission requires the Blue Moon lander to launch on a yet-to-be-announced rocket and dock with the Lunar Gateway, NASA’s future lunar orbit outpost. Astronauts will reach the Gateway using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in an Orion spacecraft. After docking with the Gateway, NASA astronauts will transfer to Blue Moon to travel to the lunar south pole for approximately a week.

Winning SLD Consortium

Following the recent failures of the Japanese company iSpace, which crashed its lander, Couluris stated that Blue Origin will rely on its large industrial team to learn from “lessons learned so as not to repeat those mistakes” in the Artemis 5 mission.

Blue Origin’s “SLD National Team” also includes Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics. Lockheed Martin will provide a cislunar transporter to refuel the reusable Blue Moon lander, which will remain in “parking orbit” between NASA missions to reduce costs.

NASA officials declined to say during the press conference what made Blue Origin’s bid the winning option, stating that the documentation would be released shortly. The bidding for the new HLS contract concluded in December. There was another competitor, a consortium led by Northrop Grumman, a former collaborator of Blue Origin during the HLS round that concluded in 2021.

US Senate Funding for HLS

The origin of the new HLS award dates back to April 2021. Shortly after NASA made SpaceX its sole choice for an Artemis lander after reviewing three proposals. The decision surprised many people who expected NASA to choose two out of the three companies vying for the lucrative contract.

SpaceX’s selection by NASA led to complaints from the other competitors, Blue Origin and Dynetics. Bezos’ company also filed a lawsuit, and the controversy delayed the implementation of SpaceX’s contract for several months. While the agency was eventually allowed to proceed, in September 2021, the Senate Appropriations Committee ordered NASA to select a second company to build an alternative crewed Artemis lander.

In the 2021 report, the Senate also noted that NASA’s Human Launch System program was not underfunded, as NASA had stated in its decision to exclusively fund SpaceX. The NASA budget of $24.83 billion in that fiscal year was slightly higher than the $24.8 billion requested by NASA.

SpaceX Delays

The Artemis 3 mission will use SpaceX’s Starship system to land near the lunar south pole. The launch is planned before 2025, but much depends on the progress of Starship’s development. Elon Musk‘s company has also been tasked with landing the astronauts for the Artemis 4 mission.

Starship has experienced delays in development due to several factors. In August 2022, NASA’s Office of Inspector General warned that the first human landing on the Moon might have to wait until 2026. SpaceX originally aimed to attempt a Starship space launch in 2021. However, the documentation and consultation required to complete the environmental analysis with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), along with development work, delayed a launch until April 2023.

The dramatic and highly anticipated launch last month ended just minutes after liftoff. The Starship encountered some issues during flight, and SpaceX commanded its destruction over the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the immense power of the Starship booster caused cement debris to explode hundreds of meters from its launch platform, damaging structures and the Orbital Launch Platform (OLP).

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