Blue Origin Taking Team Approach to Building NASA Moon Lander

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WASHINGTON — The race is on to build the next spacecraft that will land American astronauts on the moon.

On Tuesday, three major aerospace companies announced they would collaborate on one design that they will submit to NASA.

The proposal is led by Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, which has been developing a lunar lander called Blue Moon for several years.

“We’ve pulled together the best in industry to make this happen,” said Brent Sherwood, the vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin. “We all know that it’s really high time to get back to the moon.”

In March, the Trump administration announced that it was accelerating a return to the moon by four years. Instead of 2028, NASA astronauts would in 2024 walk on the moon, a place no humans have gone to since the end of the NASA’s Apollo program in 1972.

“We’re also racing against our worst enemy,” Vice President Mike Pence said in March. “Complacency.”

While NASA has been working on a big rocket known as the Space Launch System and a capsule called Orion capable of taking astronauts on deep space missions, it had not yet started on a lunar lander.

In the past, NASA has led the design process and used what are known as cost-plus contracts. The companies were reimbursed for what they paid to build the spacecraft plus an additional fee for their services. But it has taken a markedly different approach this time — it is asking commercial companies to come up with their own designs and sell them at a fixed price to NASA.

This approach gives companies more flexibility and may save NASA money.

In contrast to Apollo, where the giant Saturn 5 rocket carried all of the pieces needed for a moon landing, NASA this time will employ a more complex choreography for the new missions, named Artemis. (In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo.)

First, NASA will construct a lunar outpost called Gateway. It will orbit the moon in a highly elliptical path that comes as close as 1,000 miles and swings as far out as 43,500 miles. Then the pieces of the landing system will be sent to the Gateway.

The landing system will consist of three pieces — a transfer module that moves the astronauts and the other pieces of the lander from the Gateway to an orbit much closer to the moon; a descent module that guides the lander to the lunar surface; and an ascent module that lifts the astronauts back into space after their stay on the moon.

When all of the pieces are in the place, the astronauts are to launch in an Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System rocket to the Gateway where they will board the lander for the moon. They are expected to land near the moon’s South Pole and spend about a week there.

But in the compressed timelines — after revising a couple of drafts, NASA issued a final call for proposals on Sept. 30, and companies must send in submissions by Nov. 1 — some companies realized that they might not have all the pieces to put together a strong proposal.

Blue Moon was originally designed for taking heavy cargo, not people, to the moon. The company also does not yet have experience with sending people to space. “A national priority requires a national team, so we brought what we feel is best in class to the job,” Mr. Sherwood said.

CreditKenneth Chang

At the same time, Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule, had concentrated its lunar development efforts on the ascent module. “We strongly believe that the best way to safely and quickly accomplish this lunar landing is to leverage existing human-rated technology from Orion,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager for commercial civil space at Lockheed Martin.

Northrop Grumman — the Grumman part of the company built the Apollo lunar lander 50 years ago — thought that the Cygnus spacecraft, which carries cargo to the International Space Station, could be adapted to serve as the transfer module.

“I think it became very clear to us, as we broke apart the architecture into these major pieces, that that was in the best interest of our team,” said Frank DeMauro, sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s space division, adding that they were “putting together a system that can get there in 2024.”

In addition, Draper Laboratory has signed on to provide the guidance software for the spacecraft.

There will most likely be other proposals, notably from Boeing, the biggest space company not part of the Blue Origin partnership. A Boeing spokesman said in an email statement, “We are working on lander systems development under NASA contracts from summer and expect to put in a bid for the lander program.”

More than one team will probably advance to the next round of the competition. NASA officials have said that they would like to quickly select three proposals to move forward next year, and that two different landers would be built. One would be for the 2024 landing; the other would go to the moon the following year.

Mr. Sherwood said the companies had a plan that can meet the 2024 deadline, but because the competition is still open, he declined to give details.

The developments could also be hindered if Congress does not provide the additional $1.6 billion that NASA says is needed to begin work on the landers. Congress has yet to finish work on the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and did not provide financing for a moon mission in the temporary funding that runs through Nov. 21.

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