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NASA has awarded a contract to Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to construct a manned lunar lander, marking a major milestone in the space agency's mission to return to the moon.

NASA awards Bezos’ Blue Origin a contract to construct a manned lunar lander.

The U.S. space agency said on Friday that a team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin won a coveted $3.4 billion NASA contract to develop a spacecraft to transport men to and from the moon’s surface. This is a major victory for the business two years after losing to Elon Musk’s SpaceX in a different competition.

In collaboration with Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., software company Draper, and robotics company Astrobotic, Blue Origin wants to construct its 16-meter (52-foot) tall Blue Moon lander. Northrop Grumman Corp. and Leidos Inc.-owned defense contractor Dynetics led a competing bid that NASA rejected in favor of Blue Origin.

By choosing Bezos and Blue Origin, NASA will have a second way to carry out its Artemis program, which entails delivering astronauts to the moon. In 2021, NASA granted SpaceX, owned by fellow billionaire Musk, $3 billion to construct their Starship spacecraft, which will enable astronauts to touch down on the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972. Later this decade is when the first two Starship missions are expected.

At a ceremony announcing the deal at NASA’s headquarters, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated, “I’ve said it before: we want more competition, we want two landers, and that’s better. It demonstrates dependability and backup plans.

The agreement continues a recent pattern by NASA, in which it assists in funding the development of privately owned manned spacecraft and then pays to utilize them on missions rather than investing additional money in buying them outright.

According to the company’s lunar lander CEO John Couluris, Blue Origin, which was created in 2000, is spending “well north” of the $3.4 billion amount to develop the mission. Blue Origin, not NASA, would cover any cost overruns, according to Couluris.

After the announcement, Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and a billionaire, posted on Twitter, “Honored to be on this journey with @NASA to land astronauts on the Moon – this time to stay.”

According to a contract document, NASA chose Blue Origin’s bid over others because of its lower cost, additional lander capabilities, and commitment to carry out two test landing missions on the moon at the company’s expense in 2024 and 2025. However, NASA voiced alarm over “many inconsistencies and omissions” in Blue Origin’s estimated development timeline.

Although the price was “substantially higher,” the Dynetics-led bid generated questions from NASA about whether it exceeded technical criteria.

The Artemis program plans to establish a permanent base on the moon. The first two astronaut moon landings will be carried out by SpaceX’s Starship lander, and another comparable mission will be carried out by Blue Origin’s lander in 2029. Each is anticipated to land two people on the moon.

The announcement on Friday was long overdue for Bezos, who invested billions in Blue Origin to compete with SpaceX, a major player in satellite launches and human spaceflight, for prestigious space awards.

In 2021, NASA chose SpaceX over Blue Origin and Dynetics due to budgetary restrictions, which are mostly to blame.

After losing that contest, Blue Origin tried in vain to have NASA’s decision overturned in court and with a watchdog organization. U.S. politicians and Blue Origin had pushed NASA to get a second lander.

The Space carry System rocket that NASA will use to carry astronauts toward the moon in the Orion spacecraft made by Lockheed is part of the multi-spacecraft strategy for the initial Artemis moon missions. The crew would then be transported the remaining distance by SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander, which is intended to dock with that capsule in space.

The Orion spacecraft and the Blue Moon lander would each connect with a future space station orbiting the moon for Blue Origin’s mission. Before descending to the moon’s surface, the astronauts would switch between the vehicles.

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