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NASA honors Blue Origin SLD crew lunar lander contract


The moon as seen from the International Space Station on July 9, 2018.

Alexander Gerst | in

WASHINGTON — Jeff Bezos it’s on his NASA moon ticket.

The billionaire’s space company, Blue Origin, won a key contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Friday to build a crewed lunar lander to deliver astronauts to the surface of the moon later this decade. under the agency’s Artemis program.

The effort is effectively more than a $7 billion project. NASA’s contract award is worth just over $3.4 billion, officials said Friday, and Blue Origin Vice President John Couluris said the company will also contribute “well north” of the contract’s value. .

“We are making an additional investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way for the first humans to land on Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in announcing the Blue Origin award. “Our shared ambitions today are less lofty than when we were President [John F.] Kennedy dared a generation of dreamers to travel to the moon.”

An artist’s rendering of the lunar lander.

Blue Origin

Bezos said in a tweet Friday he was “honored to be on this journey with @NASA to put astronauts on the Moon – this time to stay.”

The group led by Blue Origin – which includes Lockheed Martin, BoeingDraper, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics – lead the proposal of a team led by Leidos-owned by Dynetics.

Leidos, in a statement to CNBC, said that “assisting NASA in encouraging efforts to return to the Moon remains a priority.” The company highlighted existing and ongoing work on NASA systems and said the team is “committed to continuing to assist critical missions.”

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NASA received two additional proposals for the SLD contract but did not consider them to be “in full compliance with the solicitation requirements” and were therefore quickly discounted, said Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the exploration division. of the agency, wrote in documents released Friday.

Known as the Sustaining Lunar Development, or SLD, program, the competition is a second time competition organized by NASA after. Elon Muskof SpaceX is the sole winner of the first crew lander contract in 2021.

The first program, called the Human Landing System, or HLS, gave SpaceX a contract to build a variant of its Starship rocket for the Artemis missions. Before the HLS award, NASA was expected to choose two winners, but the agency’s budget at the time and SpaceX’s cheaper bid resulted in one winner.

Both HLS and SLD are part of NASA’s Artemis program to land astronauts on the moon, with the agency hoping to begin flying crews to the lunar surface in the next few years. In December, NASA has completed the first Artemis missionunmanned, flew its Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and Orion spacecraft around the moon for the first time.

Free, in explaining the choice of NASA, wrote that Blue Origin’s plan shows “compelling” strengths such as two uncrewed pathfinder missions in 2024 and 2025, an early stage of technology maturity, excessive capabilities of the lander itself, and a “reasonable and balanced” price. He cited just two weaknesses in Blue Origin’s bid, noting an issue with its plan for communications during flights as well as “many conflicts and omissions” in the company’s schedule.

As for Dynetics, the strengths highlighted by Free are not enough to outweigh the areas of its plan that are “uncertain” and “ambiguous,” he said. The company’s price point, which NASA did not disclose, is “significantly higher in value” than Blue Origin’s, Free wrote.

A messy saga

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, left, and Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

Getty Images

Starship Competition

Why Starship is essential to SpaceX's future

Last year, Nelson explained the reasoning behind a second bidding process to add another privately built lunar lander, saying, “Competition is critical to our success.”

“We can use that money by working with a commercial industry and, through competition, lower NASA’s costs,” Nelson said. during Senate testimony in 2022.

SpaceX continues to build the nearly 400-foot-tall Starship rocket in the meantime. The company in April tried to reach space with the car the first time but it exploded mid-flight. Recently, Musk speculated that SpaceX would will spend about $2 billion on Starship development this year and said he expects the company to reach Earth orbit on its next launch.

Last year, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion under the HLS contract, exercising an option to purchase a second crewed demonstration landing from the company. That brings the total value of SpaceX’s HLS contract to $4.2 billion through 2027.

To date, NASA has paid about $1.8 billion to SpaceX under HLS, according to federal records.

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