May 19, 2023
— "Once in a Blue Moon..." astronauts will land on the lunar surface in 2029 and beyond.
NASA on Friday (May 19) announced the selection of Blue Moon, Blue Origin's human landing system (HLS), for the agency's Artemis V mission. The lunar lander will support two astronauts for about a weeklong stay at the moon's south pole region.
The $3.4 billion award — to which Blue Origin expects to invest "well north" of another 50 percent of its own funds — will add a second lunar lander to NASA's Artemis program architecture. The agency previously contracted SpaceX to demonstrate an initial HLS for the Artemis III mission in late 2025 and Artemis IV landing in 2028.
"[The Blue Moon] lander is targeted for Artemis V, which is really the intersection of our test flights and our long-term plans," said Jim Free, NASA's associate administrator for exploration, during a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Friday.
Blue Origin is developing and building the Blue Moon lander with several other companies, which they have dubbed the "National Team." For this sustaining lunar development contract, Blue Origin has partnered with Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics.
The Blue Moon lunar lander, as proposed, will stand 52.5 feet tall (16 meters) and weigh more than 99,000 pounds (45 metric tons) when fully fueled. The spacecraft has a crew cabin at its base, topped by liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2) tanks holding the vehicle's propellant.
"Lower performing but more easily storable propellants (such as hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide as used on the Apollo lunar landers) have been favored for these missions because of the problematic boil-off of LOX-LH2 during their long mission timelines," a Blue Origin release stated, referring to the evaporation of the cryogenic or super-cold propellant. "Through this contract, we will move the state of the art forward by making high-performance LOX-LH2 a storable propellant combination."
"Blue Origin's architecture also prepares for that future day when lunar ice can be used to manufacture LOX and LH2 propellants on the moon," the statement read.
The Blue Moon lander has solar panels to provide power and is equipped with a Boeing-provided docking port for connecting to NASA's Gateway lunar orbit platform. The lander can also be configured to fly cargo instead of humans and is capable of carrying up to 44,000 pounds (20 metric tons) on a round-trip, reusable mission or land 66,000 pounds (30 metric tons) on the lunar surface.
Lockheed Martin will build Blue Moon's cis-lunar transporter, which will provide the refueling capability from low Earth orbit to a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) and the parking orbit where the Blue Moon lander will be located.
Under the NASA contract, Blue Origin will demonstrate the capability of the Blue Moon lunar landing before it carries astronauts on Artemis V.
"We will be landing a number of [times] prior to a crew landing using our vehicles," said John Couluris, Blue Origin's HLS program manager. "We will be testing technologies in the lunar environment to ensure safety and then those will migrate into our landers. We will also land a complete version of the lunar lander in an uncrewed fashion one year prior [to Artemis V] to checkout all systems."
After Artemis V, NASA will pick between contracting use of Blue Moon or SpaceX's Starship HLS for the agency's subsequent crewed lunar landings.
"We have big goals for the Artemis program — about a mission a year to the lunar surface for stays by our astronauts for up to 30 days. Today's announcement is about maintaining that cadence," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "It's about maintaining our excellence as the world's top space program and to maintain that for generations to come."