WASHINGTON: A team led by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin won a coveted Nasa contract to build a spacecraft that will send astronauts to and from the moon’s surface, Nasa’s chief announced on Friday, capping a high-stakes contest.

Nasa’s decision will give the agency a second ride to the moon under its Artemis programme, after it awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX $3 billion in 2021 to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

Those initial missions using SpaceX’s Starship system are slated for later this decade.

The Blue Origin contract is valued roughly $3.4 billion, Nasa’s exploration chief Jim Free said, with Blue Origin privately contributing “well north” of that amount, Blue Origin’s lunar lander head John Couluris said.

“Honoured to be on this journey with Nasa to land astronauts on the Moon this time to stay,” Amazon.com billionaire founder Bezos said in a tweet after the announcement.

Blue Origin plans to build its 52-foot tall Blue Moon lander in a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, spacecraft software firm Draper, and robotics firm Astrobotic.

SpaceX’s Starship lander is poised to conduct the first two astronaut moon landings under Nasa’s Artemis programme, sending a pair of astronauts to the lunar surface for each mission. The Blue Moon landing, planned for 2029, is also expected to ferry two astronauts to the surface.

“Our partnership will only add to this golden age of human spaceflight,” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said. He added that having a second moon lander for the agency’s Artemis mission promotes commercial competition, echoing a trend in recent years that reduces costs for Nasa.—Reuters

Friday’s announcement in Washington was a long-awaited outcome for Blue Origin, which had unsuccessfully had competed for past contracts. The space company overcame a rival bid from Leidos-owned defence contractor Dynetics Inc, the head of a partnership with Northrop Grumman.

Those companies lost out to SpaceX for the 2021 contract, part of an initial moon lander procurement programme. Nasa under that programme said it could pick up to two companies, but blamed budget constraints for only going with SpaceX.

This new contract is a boost for Bezos, who since founding Blue Origin in 2000 has invested billions into the company to compete for high-profile commercial and government space contracts with SpaceX, a dominant force in satellite launches and human spaceflight.

After losing in 2021, Blue Origin unsuccessfully fought to overturn Nasa’s decision to ignore its Blue Moon lander, first with a watchdog agency and then in court.

Blue Origin and lawmakers had pressured Nasa to award a second lunar lander contract to promote commercial competition and ensure the agency has a backup ride to the moon. Nasa in early 2022 announced the programme for a second lander contract.

Couluris, who will lead Blue Origin’s development of the moon lander, said on Friday’s award was hard fought outcome.

“We’ve been working for some time, and we’re still ready to go,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2023

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