Blue Origin Team Wins NASA’s Second HLS Contract

Blue Origin Team Wins NASA’s Second HLS Contract

A team led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin won NASA’s second fixed-price contract to build a Human Landing System for the Artemis program. Like the deal signed with SpaceX in 2021, it is a Public-Private Partnership where companies share development costs with the government and retain ownership of the systems while the government guarantees purchase of a certain amount of services. NASA will pay $3.4 billion and Blue Origin says it is putting in more than that itself.

SpaceX beat Blue Origin and Dynetics to win the first Human Landing System (HLS) contract two years ago and is well into development of the Starship system that will land the crews of Artemis III and Artemis IV currently scheduled for late 2025 and 2028. Artemis III will be the first time American astronauts set foot on the Moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

NASA wants two HLS service providers, however, to ensure redundancy and competition for long-term sustained exploration of the Moon. This “Sustained Lunar Development,” or SLD, award is through “Appendix P” of NASA’s NextSTEP-2 series of procurements.

Blue Origin’s “National Team” includes Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics. Their first mission will be Artemis V in 2029.

The reusable lander is called Blue Moon. It will remain in lunar orbit between trips to the surface and needs to be refueled by a “Cislunar Transporter” space tug that will deliver propellant from a depot in Earth orbit.

Illustration of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin will use its New Glenn rocket — still in development — for all the launches. Blue Moon will fit inside New Glenn’s 7-meter diameter fairing, stands 16 meters tall, and has a dry mass (without propellant) of 16 Metric Tons.

The Cislunar Transporter and Blue Moon will use liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX) as propellant. LH2/LOX is problematic as a storable propellant because of boil-off, but Blue Origin vows to solve that problem because its high specific impulse “provides a dramatic advantage for high-energy deep space missions.”

NASA’s selection of SpaceX in 2021 prompted protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics, which were denied by the Government Accountability Office. Blue Origin took it further, suing NASA in federal court, but also lost there.

Dynetics was Blue Origin’s only competitor this time. In its Source Selection Statement accompanying the decision, NASA didn’t reveal Dynetics’s price, saying only that it was “substantially higher” than Blue Origin’s $3.4 billion.

In 2021, Blue Origin’s bid was $6 billion, twice that of SpaceX’s $2.9 billion.

John Couluris, Blue Origin’s Vice President for Lunar Transportation, indicated at a press conference today that Blue Origin itself is making up the difference. He did not specify how much they are putting in, but said it is “more than 50 percent” of the cost and “well north of” the $3.4 billion NASA is paying. That would put the total cost in the $7 billion range.

Price was not the only factor, though. Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development and the selection official, cited two features of Blue Origin’s proposal that were especially compelling.

  • Blue Origin will fund and execute pathfinder missions in 2024 and 2025 to mature technologies that are at low Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). “I find this aspect of the proposal to be compelling — it is a forward-thinking solution to mature key low-TRL technologies allowing for incorporation for any changes into the final design well in advance” and is “a significant strength of the technical proposal because it is highly advantageous to NASA in terms of maintaining schedule and ensuring mission success, and there is no financial impact to NASA because the pathfinder missions are being funded by Blue Origin.”
  • Blue Origin’s uncrewed flight test (UFT) will not only demostrate landing on the lunar surface, but will use the same version of the lander the crew will fly. The test will also demostrate the entire flight sequence — landing, lifting off, and ascending back into lunar orbit. “Early demonstration of the crewed lander, through all mission phases, allows lander systems to be exercised in the environments they are expected to operate in during the crewed demonstration mission. Thus, I find that using a fully matured crewed lander configuration for the UFT is another compelling aspect of the technical proposal — it is a significant strength that is highly advantageous to NASA because it will decrease risk to the crewed demonstration mission.”

By contrast, SpaceX’s uncrewed flight test will use a “skeleton” version of the Starship HLS and only land, not take off and ascend back into lunar orbit.

Free also gave credit to Blue Origin for excess capabilities its design provides, and for its corporate support and business approach. He did note two areas of concern, however: whether it will meet NASA’s requirements for continuous communications, and “flaws” in Blue Origin’s Integrated Master Schedule that has “numerous conflicts and omissions.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

Headquartered outside of Seattle, WA, Blue Origin has influential support in Congress, especially the Senate. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that authorizes NASA programs. Sen. Patty Murray (D) chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both issued statements today praising the decision.

“There’s a new space race going on and we’re proud that Washington companies are going to help us win it by putting more Americans on the Moon and placing us on stronger footing to get to Mars,” Cantwell said. “Two years ago, the Senate, the NASA Administrator, safety experts and a group of retired astronauts all knew the importance of maintaining competition in the Artemis program. Today’s decision finally applies a best practice developed over many space programs: increasing competition and having a backup plan makes our astronauts safer and protects the taxpayer.”

Murray tweeted her congratulations.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.