Three companies are vying to land NASA astronauts on the moon for the first time in half a century, and one — Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos — is banking on extreme teamwork to win the day.
NASA is making an aggressive push to return humans to the moon in 2024 with a program called Artemis. If the US space agency succeeds, it'd be the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo astronauts last hopped across its dusty, cratered surface in December 1972.
This time, however, NASA is racing to go back with less lead time and funding by farming out the design, testing, and operation of a landing system through a multibillion-dollar competition.
NASA picked its three favorite commercial concepts this spring and, on April 30, announced that Blue Origin, SpaceX (founded by Elon Musk), and Dynetics as its three possible options for landing on the moon.
Blue Origin won a $579 million contract, Dynetics got one worth $253 million, and SpaceX earned $135 million from NASA to develop their ideas into real-life hardware, software, and data so the agency can make an informed decision about its final pick. The winning team could get access to roughly $20 billion in contracts for a completed landing system and mission.
SpaceX and Dynetics are each going it mostly alone to develop spaceships that can land cargo and crew on the moon's surface.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Blue Origin, however, recruited aerospace titans Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper Laboratory — all of which played key roles in the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. The alliance, which has been working together for more than a year, named itself the "National Team" because the companies' joint effort to reach the moon is spread across 16 states.
During a video call with reporters on Thursday, John Couluris, the manager of Blue Origin's moon program (and a previous SpaceX employee), made it clear he believes National Team will win NASA's historic competition.
"We need each other, we work together, and we have an integrated solution," Couluris said. "We're here to stay, and we are going to be the team that gets the country and the world to the moon in 2024."
Sprinting back to the lunar surface
NASA is already working on a rocket and spaceship to fly its astronauts to the moon.
The spaceship, Orion, is a carryover from a prior (and now defunct) space program and has been in development for nearly 15 years. NASA is also managing the building of a 32-story one-use rocket called Space Launch System (SLS), which was announced in 2011 to replace the then-retiring space shuttle. Orion is designed to ride atop an SLS rocket and out to the vicinity of the moon.
Both systems are years behind-schedule and billions over-budget. NASA expects to launch an uncrewed Artemis 1 test mission around moon (but not land on it) in November 2021. If all goes well, a crewed Artemis 2 test flight on a similar mission is supposed to follow a year later.
By the end of 2024, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said, the US space agency intends to launch a crewed Artemis 3 mission and land "the first woman and the next man" on the moon.
Later in the decade, NASA hopes to build a permanent base on the lunar surface for astronaut crews to cycle through. Mission planners are eyeing the moon's south pole, where permanently shadowed floors of impact craters may hide billions of tons of frozen water — an off-world resource that could be melted, split into hydrogen and oxygen, stored, and later used to rocket the first people to Mars.
NASA also envisions frequent lunar landings with the help of a moon-orbiting Gateway space station, where crews could stay between bouts on the surface, though the projected expense of that project (and Artemis generally) is meeting resistance in Congress.
Meanwhile, NASA is running out of time to meet its goal of 2024, which is the last year President Donald Trump could be in office if he is reelected this November.
Orion is not equipped to land on the moon, though, which is where Dynetics, SpaceX, or Blue Origin's National Team are poised to help NASA.
Dividing and conquering to return to the moon
National Team pitched NASA a human landing system, or HLS, with three main parts: a transfer element by Northrop Grumman, a descent element by Blue Origin, and an ascent element led by Lockheed Martin. For each element, Draper is developing autonomous systems that could not only self-assemble the elements in space, but also "land on any any spot moon," Couluris said.
The transfer vehicle is a system that can dock with either Orion or the Gateway (if the space station is ready in time) and propel the other two elements into position to land. In the future, it could also serve as a depot to refuel elements for future missions.
The descent element is a lunar lander called Blue Moon, and it's a platform designed to rocket the mission to a soft touchdown on the surface.
Lockheed's ascent element is a small spaceship that'd ride on top of Blue Moon and house the astronauts during a surface mission. When the mission is over, the ascent element would launch off Blue Moon, reconnect with the transfer element, and either fly the crew back to the Gateway or directly to a waiting Orion spaceship.
"Each of the three HLS elements has the ability to be launched separately, or on a combination of either commercial launch vehicles and/or the Space Launch System," Paul Anderson, an engineer and director at Lockheed who's working on the National Team, said during Thursday's call. "Independent of that, the Orion spacecraft will house the crew and fly the crew during launch. And then, of course, return them safely to Earth."
Such flexibility may prove vital, since delays with SLS could continue amid the coronavirus pandemic: Having the ability to launch elements separately, perhaps on Blue Origin's forthcoming New Glenn rocket, then assemble them in space, could buy precious time to meet the 2024 mandate.
National Team is planning some on-orbit demonstrations of prototypes, including docking. If the group survives NASA's next round of selection, however, Couluris said the group will launch and set down an uncrewed Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface in 2023.
"Immediately, we [would] have the experience of landing on the moon and also landing one of the largest vehicles to ever land on the moon," he said.
When asked why National Team has the best solution to go back to the moon, compared to SpaceX or Dynetics, the group emphasized its heritage dating back to Apollo program lunar landing systems, scaling up the systems of existing spacecraft (such as the body and solar panels of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft), and an approach that doesn't overburden any one company.
"We are taking the best of those technologies from 50-plus years ago, upgrading them, and ... we're flying it in a much more sustainable and much safer manner," Couluris said. "We're divided among our four parties. Each taking tasks will allow us to divide and conquer, but conquer as a National Team."
Couluris told Business Insider during the panel that the team offers "the best opportunity for the country to make it in as soon as possible" to the moon.
"You have four partners with more experience than most, not only in the country but in the world, working together in a very efficient manner, not a bloated manner," he said. "We are producing hardware and results that we will be able to show, going into the next phase, that we have a viable solution that will return the country to the moon."