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Saturday, Jun 19, 2021

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin teams up with spacefaring heavyweights for human lunar lander design

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin teams up with spacefaring heavyweights for human lunar lander design

Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, Blue Origin, no longer plans to build its giant lunar lander for NASA by itself. The company announced today that it is teaming up with three other legacy space companies -Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper - to develop a lunar landing system for the space agency that is fully capable of taking humans to and from the Moon’s surface.
By teaming up, the companies say they are better prepared to meet NASA’s expedited goal of putting people back on the Moon by 2024. “We recognize that this project and the time frame that the nation is calling for is ambitious — very ambitious,” Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s vice president of advanced development programs, said during a press conference. “And so we’ve pulled together the best in the industry to make this happen with our partner, NASA.”

NASA is in desperate need of a lunar lander at the moment as the agency prepares to send the first woman to the Moon as part of its Artemis program. The space agency had originally planned to perform the first landing for Artemis in 2028, but in March Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to speed up its timeline by four years. As a result, NASA has been scrambling to give out contracts for key vehicles that it needs to pull off such a monumental feat. On September 30th, the agency officially put out a call to the aerospace industry for lander designs, with submissions due by November 1st.

Before now, both Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin were something of rivals when it came to the Artemis program, as they had both pitched their own lunar lander designs to the public. In May, Bezos unveiled Blue Origin’s lunar lander concept, known as Blue Moon, which the company had been secretly working on for the last three years. The company also showed off a brand-new engine for the lander, called the BE-7, which would lower the vehicle down to the Moon’s surface. A month before that, Lockheed Martin detailed its own plans for a lunar lander. That concept was heavily influenced by the design of the Orion spacecraft, which the company has been developing for NASA to take humans into deep space.

Now, the companies have decided to join forces. Blue Origin plans to build the actual lander itself, along with the BE-7 main engine. Lockheed Martin plans to build the ascent portion of the lander - the vehicle that crews will ride in when they take off of the Moon. Both of these vehicles will still be based on the designs the two companies proposed earlier this year, but will be integrated together. Blue Origin will also be taking the lead on the entire project, while Lockheed Martin will train and lead the flight controllers who will manage the lander in space.

The two companies say that they came together after realizing the magnitude of what needed to be accomplished. “We recognize that there is an enormous amount to get done,” said Sherwood. “The schedule laid on top of that really highlights that. And so, to us the most sensible thing was to get together to try to deliver this to NASA.” However, Blue Origin still plans to develop and build the entire Blue Moon cargo lander system on its own to offer to other commercial customers. But for the Artemis program, this team approach is the focus.

Meanwhile, Draper is tasked with providing all the flight software for the system, which will provide guidance and navigation to the Moon. Northrop Grumman will create something of an in-space ferry for the lander, known as a transfer element. When not on the surface, the lander is meant to live at a new space station NASA wants to build around the Moon called the Gateway. Astronauts traveling from Earth will dock at the Gateway and climb into the landers on their way to the Moon’s surface. Even so, the Gateway won’t be close enough to the Moon’s surface for the lander to perform landings directly. That’s where the transfer element comes in. That ferry is necessary to take the lander from the station down to the right altitude above the Moon so that the lander can do its thing.

Both Northrop and Draper have lots of experience in their respective fields. Draper developed the guidance computer that took the Apollo human landers to the Moon in the 1960s and ‘70s. And Northrop says it will base the design of the transfer element on a spacecraft it already makes regularly: the Cygnus capsule it uses to send supplies to the International Space Station. The companies claim that by leveraging designs from systems they’ve already built, they should be able to meet the ambitious goal of 2024.

“By all of us coming together, taking existing systems that the government’s already invested in and we’ve already invested in seemed like the best use of the American public’s money and bringing it together and reusing those components,” Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager for commercial civil space at Lockheed Martin Space, said during the press conference.

The companies didn’t go into detail about how they plan to build and test their vehicles. However, NASA has been clear that the agency does not have time to do an uncrewed landing demonstration with the vehicle prior to people boarding the lander. Blue Origin also claims that the lander elements can launch to the Moon on the New Glenn rocket that the company is currently developing. However, any capable rocket can do the trick. “It’s a flexible architecture, the elements of which can be launched on multiple commercial launch vehicles,” Sherwood said.

Of course, this partnership is largely contingent on NASA picking the companies to move ahead with their landing system for the Artemis system, which isn’t a done deal yet. That decision may come soon in the months ahead.

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