Blue Origin and four other companies win millions to keep lunar lander dreams alive
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.”
It’s not clear whether Blue Origin would collaborate with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman on an Appendix N lunar lander concept. However, the fact that NASA is giving them separate awards suggests that they’ll be required to come up with separate concepts. We’ve reached out to Blue Origin and NASA for more information, and we’ll update this report with anything we hear back.