Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the secretive space company he's been running for nearly two decades, is teaming up with a trio of aerospace industry heavyweights in an attempt to build a lunar landing system to meet the White House's audacious goal of returning humans to the surface of the moon by 2024.
The team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, plans to submit a bid to NASA for what many consider to be the most challenging component of a lunar landing - the spacecraft capable of getting humans safely to and from the lunar surface. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Earlier this year, the White House dramatically sped up NASA's moon program by calling for the space agency to get humans there by 2024 - not 2028, as had been originally planned. That accelerated timeline for what NASA calls its Artemis program has been criticized as unrealistic, but the companies said that with their combined expertise and heritage, they could meet the deadline.
"We recognize that this project and the time frame that the nation is calling for is ambitious, very ambitious," said Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin's vice president of advanced development programs. "And so we've pulled together the best in the industry to make this happen with our partner, NASA."
NASA has not announced what the contract for the lunar lander would be worth, saying it first needs to see what sorts of offerings it gets from industry before coming up with a price.
Blue Origin first pitched NASA on a lunar lander it calls "Blue Moon" in early 2017, and in May, Bezos unveiled a life-size mock-up of the spacecraft in Washington. Getting to the moon has long been a priority for Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the goal of dramatically lowering the cost of spaceflight and helping humanity spread farther into the solar system.
He has said that Blue Origin is the "most important work that I'm doing," and he has lauded the White House's plan to return to the moon quickly.
"It's the right thing to do," Bezos said in May. He said the company could help meet the 2024 mandate because it started development of the lunar lander three years ago. "It's time to go back to the moon - this time to stay," he said.
But the White House's lunar ambitions have run into a roadblock in Congress, where Democrats in particular are skeptical. While NASA has requested an additional $1.6 billion in funding for the program for next year's budget, it has yet to release a price tag for the entire, multiyear plan, estimated to cost between $20 billion and $30 billion.
"The President has decided to play politics with the Artemis program by seeking to speed up plans to send humans back to the moon in 2024 instead of 2028 without a strong justification for doing so," Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said in a recent statement to The Post.
Given the vast difficulties with landing on the moon, even Ken Bowersox, NASA's acting head of human exploration, said it seemed unlikely that NASA could meet the 2024 deadline.
While it is good to have "an aggressive goal," he said during a congressional hearing last month that he "wouldn't bet my oldest child's upcoming birthday present or anything like that." NASA last week announced that Doug Loverro, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, would take over the head of human exploration position.
As part of its plan to get astronauts to the moon for the first human landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, NASA plans to build an outpost called the Gateway, which would stay in orbit around the moon. Astronauts would first fly to the Gateway, and then be transported to the lunar surface by the landing system, which would also have a spacecraft known as an "ascent vehicle" capable of transporting them back to the Gateway.
Blue Origin would build a lander capable of transporting several metric tons to the lunar surface. Lockheed Martin, which is already developing the Orion spacecraft to transport astronauts from Earth to the Gateway, would build the ascent crew vehicle to fly them to and from the surface of the moon. Northrop Grumman would build a transfer vehicle that would station the lander in low lunar orbit. And Draper would work on the guidance and navigation systems.
While the team is formidable, it appears to have competition. Boeing said it also would bid for the human lander. And Elon Musk's SpaceX is developing a next-generation spacecraft, known as Starship, that it says could also take people to the lunar surface. Though it hasn't said whether it intends to bid on the lunar lander contract, a spokesman said the company's spacecraft and rocket "are integral to accelerating NASA's lunar and Mars plans."
To meet the goal for Artemis, NASA has been trying to speed up its procurement process. Blue Origin said that, if it were awarded the contract, work on the program could start as soon as January. But Congress would need to provide the funding for the years to come, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been spending an enormous amount of time meeting with lawmakers, hoping to win support.
"The obstacles are not really technical challenges," Blue Origin's Sherwood said. "It depends on the speed of the procurement, and the budget behind it."
This article was written by Christian Davenport, a reporter for The Washington Post.