On the second try, Jeff Bezos and his rocket company got the job of bringing NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.
NASA announced on Friday that it has awarded Mr. Bezos’ company Blue Origin a contract to provide its Blue Moon lander for a lunar mission currently scheduled for launch in 2029.
The Artemis V mission is another important part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon to explore the south polar region. Astronauts are scheduled to land on the moon in a vehicle built by SpaceX for the Artemis III and IV missions.
“We want more competition,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, during Friday’s event at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It means you have reliability. They have backups.”
NASA will pay $3.4 billion to Blue Origin, and John Couluris, Blue Origin’s vice president of lunar transport, said the company is contributing “significantly more” than that amount to the development effort.
Winning the contract could mark a promising year of recovery for Blue Origin after a series of delays and setbacks. This includes the failure of one of its New Shepard vehicles, which fly into space but not orbit, during a launch last September that was carrying experiments but no passengers. Blue Origin has identified the cause and hopes to resume New Shepard flights later this year, which involve both space tourists and scientific cargo.
And some hardware made by Blue Origin could finally be used on an orbital mission in the coming months. The company built engines for the booster stage of the Vulcan rocket, which is being developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Blue Origin could also provide some public glimpses of New Glenn, a much larger rocket designed to launch payloads into orbit.
For the Lunar Module contract, Blue Origin, working with other aerospace companies including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, defeated a second team led by Dynetics, a defense contractor based in Huntsville, Alabama. Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos of Reston, Virginia, had enlisted the help of aerospace company Northrop Grumman for its bid.
Blue Origin and Dynetics were disappointed losers in 2021 when NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a variant of its massive spacecraft that will land astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than half a century should.
The two companies protested the decision, particularly because NASA officials originally sought to award two contracts.
This would have paralleled NASA’s successful efforts to entrust private companies with the transportation of cargo and crew to the International Space Station. The competition helps reduce costs and creates layoffs when things go wrong, agency officials said.
But when they gave SpaceX just one prize, NASA officials said there wasn’t enough money in their budget for a second lander. SpaceX’s $2.9 billion bid was by far the lowest bid. The design proposed by Blue Origin was priced at $6 billion, and the one offered by Dynetics was even more expensive.
The federal government’s office of accountability rejected the protests by the two companies. Blue Origin then sued in federal court and lost again.
Last year, NASA announced a competition for a second lunar lander after receiving a larger budget from Congress. Dynetics and Blue Origin decided to go head-to-head again, despite some rescheduling of the companies involved in the effort. Northrop Grumman, who was part of Blue Origin’s original proposal, moved to the Dynetics team.
Blue Origin added Boeing to its team; Astrobotic, a small Pittsburgh company developing robotic lunar landers; and Honeybee Robotics, a space technology company that Blue Origin bought last year.
The Blue Origin lander, designed to take two astronauts to the moon’s south polar region, won’t reach the moon for quite some time.
SpaceX’s original $2.9 billion contract was to provide the lander for the first lunar landing during Artemis III, which is currently scheduled for late 2025 but will likely be pushed back to 2026 or later. In November, NASA exercised a $1.15 billion option for SpaceX in that contract to also provide a lander for Artemis IV, a mission planned for 2028.