May 19th, 2023
A team led by Blue Origin has been selected by NASA to build a second Human Landing System for the agency’s Artemis program.
Called Blue Moon, the overall lander is being developed by Blue Origin. The company is partnered with Boeing, Astrobotic, Lockheed Martin, Draper and Honeybee Robotics. Together, they’ll develop the vehicle that will begin landing astronauts on the Moon’s south pole starting with Artemis 5 no earlier than 2029.
Blue Origin with its Blue Moon is the second provider selected to land astronauts on the Moon for NASA’s Artemis program. The other is SpaceX with its Lunar Starship, which is expected to touch down on the lunar surface with a crew as early as 2026 during Artemis 3. Both will compete for future landings beyond Artemis 5.
“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 for NASA’s 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.”
Just like with the Starship lander, astronauts are expected to fly to cislunar space in an Orion spacecraft, launched via NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, to rendezvous and dock with Blue Moon. Two or four astronauts would then transfer to the lander for a surface mission.
Blue Moon is about 52 feet (16 meters) tall and is designed to fit in the 23-foot (7-meter) payload fairing of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which the company is also currently developing.
The lander is expected to have a dry mass of about 16 metric tons. When its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants are added, its mass increases to more than 45 metric tons.
Blue Origin is working on a solar-powered 20-degree Kelvin cryocooler to prevent its super-chilled propellants from boiling off. That propellant will be used for the lander’s BE-7 engines, which the company has been developing for years.
In a departure from traditional landers, the crew compartment will be below the propellant tanks, placing the astronauts as close to the surface as possible after reaching the Moon’s surface.
The habitat section will include an airlock as well as a docking port that will allow it to dock with NASA’s Lunar Gateway, which will be stationed in an elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. The docking port could also be used to transfer to other surface hardware, such as a pressurized rover, in a shirt-sleeve environment.
Blue Origin said the lander can reach a near-rectilinear halo orbit (the location of the Lunar Gateway) in a single launch. However, to go from there to the lunar surface will require its tanks to be refilled.
To do this, Lockheed Martin is designing a cislunar transport vehicle that can be refilled in low Earth orbit, possibly using a tanker launched atop a New Glenn rocket. The cislunar transport vehicle would then travel to the lander in near-rectilinear halo orbit to transfer the cryogenic liquid before returning to low Earth orbit to be used again.
It’s unclear how many trips will be required to refill the Blue Moon lander. But the company said once full, it can travel from the Gateway to the Moon’s surface and back to the Gateway before needing to be refilled again.
There will be two variants of this lander. In a reusable configuration (as it will be for crews), it can take about 20 tons to the Moon’s surface and back. If in a one-way expendable mode, that can be increased to at least 30 tons to send hardware, such as a lunar habitat, to the lunar south pole.
NASA said it awarded Blue Origin $3.4 billion to develop this lander. The company said it is putting at least that much of its own money into the project.
Under the contract, Blue Origin is required to perform at least one uncrewed test landing in 2028 before flying crew in 2029 during Artemis 5. It will build a second lander for the crewed mission, but the test lander could also be reused in the future.
The Artemis 5 landing mission is expected to be a duration of about a week. Eventually NASA wants Artemis surface stays to last on the order of a month as the agency tests capabilities for future Mars missions in the late 2030s.
“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.”
The Human Landing System program
Both Blue Origin and SpaceX are developing commercial human-rated landers for the Artemis program under NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, which is a program the agency is using for public-private partnerships for the development of deep space exploration capabilities.
In 2021, SpaceX was awarded a contract worth $2.89 billion for a lander under Appendix H Option A of this program, which was for an initial-capability lunar lander.
SpaceX’s Lunar Starship is the largest of the landers. It’s based on the 164-foot (50-meter) tall “ship” portion of the company’s fully reusable mega rocket, currently in development in South Texas.
Under this initial contract, SpaceX is expected to send an uncrewed lander to the Moon as early as 2024 or 2025. To do this will require the Starship system to demonstrate it can reach orbit. The company also has to prove out in-space cryogenic propellent transfer and long-term in-space cryogenic storage with minimal boiloff.
Using a Starship tanker variant, a propellant depot (also based on Starship) in low Earth orbit will be filled, requiring several launches, before the lander variant is launched. Lunar Starship would then use the depot to refill its tanks before flying to the Moon.
After a successful uncrewed test, SpaceX will need to do it all over again for the crewed Artemis 3 mission as early as 2026. As for all Artemis landing missions, the Starship lander is expected to loiter in an elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, waiting for an Orion spacecraft and its crew, launching atop a Space Launch System rocket, to rendezvous and dock with the vehicle.
Two astronauts are then expected to transfer to the lander and travel to the lunar south pole.
In 2022, SpaceX was awarded $1.15 billion under Option B of NextSTEP Appendix H, which is for a second-generation Starship landing system that has added requirements for sustainability. This includes support for longer surface stays with crews of up to four astronauts.
This second Lunar Starship is projected to be used for the Artemis 4 mission, no earlier than 2028. Unlike during the Artemis 3 mission, this second Starship is expected to first dock with the Lunar Gateway outpost, which is set to be stationed in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon by late 2026 to be the first stop for all future Artemis beginning with Artemis 4.
Blue Origin was awarded a contract under NextSTEP Appendix P “Sustaining Lunar Development,” which is for a second sustainable-class lander. Since SpaceX was already awarded a contract under Appendix H Option B, it was ineligible to compete for this contract.
For landing missions beyond Artemis 5, NASA plans to buy landing services from these companies under the Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program, or LETS. This will be akin to how NASA uses the Commercial Crew Program to buy services from SpaceX and Boeing for transportation to the International Space Station.
While Blue Origin and SpaceX will be eligible for competition under LETS, it’s possible for other companies to compete for Artemis landings should they develop a capable lander with NASA’s sustainability requirements.
The other company competing for this Appendix P contract was Dynetics, which was developing a reusable methane-fueled lander called ALPACA, or Autonomous Logistics Platform for All-Moon Cargo Access. It’s unclear if the company will continue development of this system on its own.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.