NASA has chosen Blue Origin to build a lander to take astronauts to the surface of the Moon.
Announced Friday, the space agency has awarded the new $3.4 billion contract for its Artemis V mission, which is currently scheduled for 2029. Blue Origin’s National Team partners include Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics.
That mission will see two astronauts descend to the lunar surface from NASA’s upcoming Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting space station that’s yet to be constructed. The contract also includes a cislunar transporter and one uncrewed lunar landing demonstration.
Artemis V will be the fifth planned mission and third crewed landing on the Moon.
“We are in a golden age of human spaceflight, which is made possible by NASA’s commercial and international partnerships,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Together, we are making an investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way to land the first astronauts on Mars.”
What Are NASA’s Artemis Missions?
It’s NASA’s intention to land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface with Artemis III as part of a long-term aim of preparing human missions to Mars.
All missions will involve NASA’s Orion capsule and Space Launch System rocket, which were successfully tested in late-2022 during an uncrewed mission around the Moon.
Artemis III will be humanity’s first return to the Moon in more than 50 years and see astronauts land near the lunar South Pole, but missions will continue throughout the 2020s.
What About SpaceX Starship?
SpaceX will provide the lunar lander for the first lunar surface expedition of the 21st century.
In April 2021 SpaceX was selected by NASA to build its Starship human landing system (HLS) for the final leg of the Artemis III mission, which is scheduled for 2025. It will see the first humans descend to the surface of the Moon since 1972’s Apollo 17 mission, but crucially from NASA’s Orion spacecraft—and not Lunar gateway, which won’t exist.
SpaceX will fly at least one uncrewed demo mission that lands Starship on the lunar surface, said NASA.
A $1.15 billion contract extension was awarded by NASA to SpaceX in November 2022 for a second iteration of the hardware for NASA’s Artemis IV, which is scheduled for for 2027. That new contract will mean SpaceX evolving its first-gen Artemis III Starship HLS so that it can be used to dock with the Lunar Gateway, thus making it usable for future missions. Cue the Artemis V Starship HLS.
Fostering A Lunar Economy
However, NASA’s aim is for multiple companies to provide Moon landing services in an effort to foster the burgeoning private spaceflight industry—hence today’s contract award.
“Having two distinct lunar lander designs, with different approaches to how they meet NASA’s mission needs, provides more robustness and ensures a regular cadence of Moon landings,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager, Human Landing System Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “This competitive approach drives innovation, brings down costs, and invests in commercial capabilities to grow the business opportunities that can serve other customers and foster a lunar economy.”
Starship HLS—modeled on SpaceX Starship the exploded four minutes into a test flight on April 20, 2023—will be modified and first tested in lunar orbit, likely in 2024, before being used with crew.
During Artemis III and Artemis IV it will take the astronauts from the Lunar Gateway to the Moon’s surface where the crew with walk on the Moon before riding Starship HLS back to the Lunar Gateway.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.