Bezos to the Moon: Blue Origin joins SpaceX and Dynetics in a three-horse lunar lander race

NASA selects three contenders for flag-in-Moon prize

With a scant few years remaining until the agency's 2024 boots-on-the-Moon goal, NASA has named the three US companies that will be dealing with the tricky human landing bit of the mission.

The combined contract award of a cool near-billion dollars over the 10-month base period will be split between Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX.

Two of those will also be making use of United Launch Alliance's (ULA) upcoming Vulcan launch system while the third continues to make big promises about its Starship, which seems to have taken a break from regular explosions and implosions during ground tests.

There was no love for Boeing, however, which has challenges of its own in getting NASA's monster Space Launch System rocket to the launchpad.

Blue Origin's pitch is a "national team" with Lockheed Martin dealing with the ascent element of the lander, Draper handling the guidance and navigation systems and Northrop Grumman taking care of transfer duties. Bezos' crowd will be responsible for the descent portion of the system, with a lander powered by Blue Origin's BE-7 engine.

The first uncrewed demonstrator is due in 2023, with humans bounding about the surface once more in 2024 should everything go to plan.

NASA's Source Selection Statement for the Human Landing System (HLS) rated Blue Origin as "Acceptable" on the technical side and "Very Good" for management. However, even though $579m is due to be slung Blue Origin's way, the selection board worried that "this system is comprised of multiple relatively low technology readiness level (TRL) systems that will be challenging to manufacture, integrate, and test."

Dynetics scored higher, rated as "Very Good" in both categories, and leads a team with more than 25 subcontractors aimed at producing a launcher-agnostic, low-slung design. It nabbed $253m of the pot.

SpaceX scored $135m, with the selection statement rating it as "Acceptable" both technically and in management terms. However, the report worried that the proposed propulsion system was "notably complex" and did not address the potential for delays particularly well. The company plans to use its Super Heavy Booster to launch a Starship vehicle, which will perform the lunar landing.

At the end of a 10-month period of monitoring and review, NASA will likely whittle the field down further to those it reckons stand the best chance of meeting the increasingly ambitious 2024 deadline. ®


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