The moon as seen from the International Space Station on July 9, 2018.
Alexander Gerst | NASA
WASHINGTON — Jeff Bezos has his NASA moon map.
The billionaire’s aerospace company Blue Origin won a major contract Friday from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop a crewed lunar lander to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface later this decade under the agency’s Artemis program.
The effort is, in fact, a more than $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 value.
“We are making an additional investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way for the first humans to land on Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said when announcing the Blue Origin award. Our shared aspirations are no less lofty now than they were then president [John F.] Kennedy challenged a generation of dreamers to travel to the moon.”
Artistic rendering of the lunar lander.
Bezos said in a Twitter Friday he is “honored to be on this journey with @NASA to land astronauts on the moon – this time to stay.”
The Blue Origin-led team — including Lockheed Martin, BoeingDraper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics — topped the proposal from a team led by Leidosowned by Dynetics.
Leidos said in a statement to CNBC that “helping NASA with the inspiring efforts to return to the Moon will continue to be a priority.” Highlighting its existing and ongoing work on NASA systems, the company said the team is “committed to continuing to assist with these critical missions.”
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NASA received two additional proposals for the SLD contract, but neither was considered “fully in line with the application requirements” and so was quickly discounted, Jim Free, NASA deputy administrator for the agency’s research division, wrote in documents. released Friday.
Known as the Sustaining Lunar Development or SLD Program, the contest was essentially a second chance competition that NASA hosted after Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the sole winner of the first crew landing contract in 2021.
That first program, called the Human Landing System, or HLS, gave SpaceX a contract to develop a variant of its Starship rocket for Artemis missions. Prior to the HLS award, NASA was expected to pick two winners, but the agency’s budget at the time and SpaceX’s more affordable 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 fly crews to the lunar surface within a few years. In December, NASA completed the first Artemis mission, which had no humans on board, and flew its Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and Orion spacecraft around the moon for the first time.
Free, in explaining NASA’s selection, wrote that Blue Origin’s plan contained “convincing” strengths, such as two unmanned pathfinder missions in 2024 and 2025, early-stage technology maturation, excess capabilities of the lander itself, and a ” reasonable and balanced” price. He cited only two weaknesses in Blue Origin’s bid, noting a problem with its in-flight communications plan, as well as “numerous conflicts and omissions” in the company’s schedule.
As for Dynetics, the strengths highlighted by Free weren’t enough to outweigh parts of the plan that were “uncertain” and “unclear,” he said. The company’s price, which NASA did not disclose, was also “significantly higher in amount” than Blue Origin, Free wrote.
A messy story
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, left, and Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.
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 partnering with a commercial industry and competing to bring that cost to NASA,” Nelson said during Senate testimony in 2022.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has continued to develop its nearly 400-foot-tall Starship rocket. The company first attempted to reach space with the vehicle in April, but it exploded in flight. Musk recently estimated that SpaceX will spend about $2 billion developing Starship this year and said he expects the company to enter orbit on its next launch.
Last year, NASA gave SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion reward under the HLS contract, exercising an option to purchase a second crewed demonstration landing from the company. That brought the total value of SpaceX’s HLS contract through 2027 to $4.2 billion.
To date, according to federal records, NASA has paid out about $1.8 billion to SpaceX under HLS.