Blue Origin and four other companies win millions to keep lunar lander dreams alive

·5 min read
Illustration: Astronaut stepping onto moon
An artist’s conception shows an astronaut stepping onto the lunar surface. (NASA Illustration)

Months after losing out to SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and two of its partners in a lunar lander project will be getting fresh infusions of financial support from NASA, thanks to a follow-up program aimed at boosting capabilities for putting astronauts on the moon.

Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman aren’t the only companies sharing a total of $146 million in fixed-price awards. SpaceX and Dynetics — the two rivals of the Blue Origin-led “National Team” in NASA’s previous lunar lander solicitation — will get pieces of the pie as well.

The follow-up program, NextSTEP Appendix N, seeks expertise to help NASA shape the strategy and requirements for a future solicitation that’ll be focused on establishing regular crewed transportation from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface.

That’s different from the competitive process that resulted in SpaceX winning a $2.9 billion contract from NASA in April to adapt its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system. That development program, NextSTEP Appendix H, covers only the first crewed landing of NASA’s Artemis moon program, which is tentatively set for 2024. Appendix N would set the stage for the landings that are expected to follow.

“Establishing a long-term human presence on the moon through recurring services using lunar landers is a major Artemis goal,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said today in a news release. “This critical step lays the foundation for U.S. leadership in learning more about the moon and for learning how to live and work in deep space for future missions farther into the solar system.”

Over the next 15 months, Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and the other four companies will be tasked with developing lander design concepts and evaluating what it would take to turn them into sustainable systems. They’ll also test components and develop technologies to mitigate the risks for future landers.

Milestone-based payments would amount to $25.6 million for Blue Origin, $35.2 million for Lockheed Martin, $34.8 million for Northrop Grumman, $40.8 million for Dynetics and $9.4 million for SpaceX.

When NASA made its sole-source award to SpaceX for Appendix H, back in April, it said Congress didn’t provide enough money to support more than one contractor. Blue Origin contested NASA’s decision — initially with the Government Accountability Office, and then in federal court.

NASA has suspended its work with SpaceX on the $2.9 billion contract pending the court’s decision, which is expected in November.

In his first blog posting as NASA administrator, Bill Nelson acknowledged “there is a stay of performance for as late as Nov. 8 on that contract” but said the Appendix N awards demonstrate that the broader effort to support commercial lunar landers is still moving forward.

“We’re priming industry to submit their proposals for regular crewed lunar transportation services next year,” Nelson said. “Those services, which call for carrying crew in a lander from Gateway in orbit to the lunar surface and back, are slated to begin in the late 2020s.”

In the past, Blue Origin has complained that Appendix N and the solicitation that’s expected to follow, known as Lunar Exploration Transportation Services or LETS, were “underfunded, undefined, [and would] duplicate the substantial work done under Appendix H.”

Update for 9:11 p.m. PT Sept. 14: Blue Origin said it would continue to work with its National Team partners — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — on a human landing system proposed in line with Appendix N. At the same time, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman would work on alternative approaches. First, here’s Blue Origin’s statement:

“NASA selected the Blue Origin-led National Team’s proposal for a contract award under the NextSTEP-2 Appendix N program. Under this contract, the National Team will conduct critical studies and risk reduction activities that will contribute to future sustainable lander concepts. We will also work closely with multiple other companies and NASA field centers across the nation on this effort. The National Team’s proposal received outstanding ratings across all major evaluation criteria, including in relevance and in technical approach.

“The National Team core includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were also selected for individual awards under NextSTEP-2 Appendix N, and we’d like to congratulate them on their selection — all of our collective work on underlying technologies will help the success of future crewed lunar surface landings.”

Lockheed Martin issued this statement from Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of commercial civil space:

“Artemis is an important and inspirational effort for our nation and the world and we recognize the value of diverse thoughts from multiple companies and countries. Lockheed Martin continues to be committed to the National Team and its thoughtful, safe and sustainable lander system. As a longstanding and trusted NASA partner, we also believe it is important to provide additional approaches to help shape the strategy for both a sustainable human presence on the moon and also future human missions to Mars.”

Here’s the statement from Steve Krein, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for civil and commercial satellites:

Putting humans back on the lunar surface is an inspiring goal for our nation. As a key partner to NASA and a positive example of how commercial partnerships can work effectively, Northrop Grumman brings a proven record of accomplishment in human space exploration. We continue to work in partnership with Blue Origin and the National Team to meet NASA’s ambitious goals to return to the moon and Mars. In addition to those collective efforts, we are also providing our unique skills and capabilities to exploring alternative perspectives for a long-term sustainable program to take humans back to the moon to stay.”

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