Jeff Bezos announces an all-star team for Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander

Alan Boyle
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos discusses his space ambitions during a fireside chat at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture is heading up a team of top space companies — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to build a landing system to take NASA astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

“This is a national team for a national priority,” Bezos said here at the International Astronautical Congress, where he received the International Astronomical Federation’s first Excellence in Industry Award on Blue Origin’s behalf.

Blue Origin would serve as the prime contractor for the lander project, with its Blue Moon lander serving as the heart of the system.

Bezos said Northrop Grumman, which built the lunar lander for the Apollo program a half-century ago, would be responsible for the orbital transfer vehicle that would take astronauts from a moon-orbiting Gateway platform to a lower lunar orbit.

Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, would build the ascent crew module that would sit atop the Blue Moon lander and bring the astronauts back from the lunar surface. The company would also lead crewed flight operations and training.

Draper, which worked on avionics for Apollo, would work on the descent guidance system and flight avionics.

Blue Origin executives said that the system has been proposed for NASA’s use under the terms of the space agency’s NextSTEP-2 Appendix H solicitation. NASA is expected to select at least a couple of landing systems for further development in January. The systems that are ultimately selected would serve as key elements in NASA’s Artemis program to send “the first woman and the next man” to the lunar surface in as little as five years.

In May, Bezos unveiled a mockup of the Blue Moon lander and revealed that his privately held space company was working on a hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine to provide propulsion. During this week’s congress, the mockup has been set up at the same convention center where Bezos made the big reveal.

GeekWire’s Alan Boyle has his moment with Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo)

Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, said in a news release that he and his colleagues at Blue Origin were “humbled and inspired to lead this deeply committed team that will land NASA astronauts on the moon.”

“Combining our partners’ heritage with our advance work on the Blue Moon lunar lander and its BE-7 engine, our team is looking forward to working with NASA in support of the Artemis program,” Smith said.

Lockheed Martin has been working on its own lunar lander concept for NASA’s use, but decided to join forces with Blue Origin for the Appendix H proposal — partly because the timeline for a 2024 landing is so tight.

“We value Blue Origin’s thoughtful approach to developing human-rated flight systems, and are thrilled to be part of a national team with this mix of innovation and experience,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, said in a statement. “We look forward to safely and sustainably returning our nation to the surface of the moon by 2024.”

Like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman is already involved in other aspects of the Artemis program, including the solid rocket boosters for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, the astronaut escape system for the Orion capsule, and the habitation module for the Gateway outpost.

“We are proud to be a part of the Blue Origin national team to support NASA’s Artemis program and the ambitious goal to return to the moon by 2024,” Blake Larson, corporate vice president and president of Innovation Systems at Northrop Grumman, said in a statement.

Bezos made his Blue Moon announcement at the end of a fireside chat with incoming IAF President Pascale Ehrenfreunde, who chairs the executive board of Germany’s DLR aerospace agency. Here are other highlights from the chat:

  • The IAF’s award went to Blue Origin for the Kent, Wash.-based company’s work on the reusable New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, which is undergoing uncrewed test flights in Texas. Bezos played a “greatest hits” video of New Shepard flights and touted the craft’s BE-3 rocket engine. “We want the BE-3 engine to be the most used, most flown engine in the world,” he said. Crewed flights are expected to begin next year.
  • Bezos also showed off a time-lapse video of a 7-meter-wide (23-foot-wide) nose cone for Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket being fabricated at a Florida factory. The video showed a robotic carrier, not unlike the ones used at Bezos’ better-known business venture, trundling the structure across an expansive factory floor. “New Glenn will fly in 2021,” Bezos said.
  • Bezos repeated his oft-expressed view that lowering the cost of access to space should unleash a burst of entrepreneurial creativity, analogous to the rise of internet-based ventures such as Amazon and Facebook. “I want to live a long time so I can see that,” the 55-year-old billionaire said.

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