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Blue Moon, Another Lunar Lander for Artemis

Published on 22 May 2023

After SpaceX's Starship, NASA has chosen a second vehicle to take astronauts to the Moon. It will be Blue Moon from Blue Origin, a company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Blue Moon, Another Lunar Lander for Artemis

NASA’s Artemis program seems like a puzzle where the various elements necessary for the return to the Moon come from classic contracts with industrialists, from a rationale of international cooperation and the use of commercial contracts.

The SLS (Space Launch System) launcher and the Orion capsule thus call on so-called classic contracts with manufacturers (respectively Boeing and Lockheed Martin). The SLS/Orion pair demonstrated that it worked as expected on the Artemis I mission at the end of 2022. The video opposite summarises this flight.
Cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as those of Japan (JAXA) and Canada (ASC), provides several elements including the European Service Module (ESM), also tested on Artemis I, and modules of the future Gateway station around the Moon. 

Finally, commercial contracts with the private sector have been signed for spacesuits (Axiom Space will take care of those worn during Artemis III) and the lunar lander.

At NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, NASA  Administrator Bill Nelson (left) announces that Blue Origin will supply the second Artemis HLS. In the background, the logo of the company can be seen.
© NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Another Lunar Lander

In 2021, NASA selected SpaceX for the craft responsible for taking astronauts to the surface of Selene. The private firm founded by Elon Musk has offered a special version of its imposing Starship (which recently had a test flight). Let us recall here that the device called HLS by the American agency (Human Landing System) is not intended to accomplish the entirety of an Artemis mission. Astronauts depart for the Moon aboard the Orion capsule atop the SLS. In lunar orbit, the crew passes (directly, or via the Gateway if it is then operational) to the HLS responsible for the journey to the surface of our natural satellite. Then the same HLS leaves the Moon to meet the Gateway or Orion. It is this capsule that takes care of the return to Earth. On May 19 2023, NASA officially announced that it had selected Blue Moon as the second lunar lander for Artemis. Blue Moon is provided by the Blue Origin company, founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Blue Moon for Artemis V

Blue Moon is a 16-m high lunar lander with a mass of 16 tons unladen, and 45 tons with its propellants (hydrogen and liquid oxygen). To develop it, Jeff Bezos’ company worked with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Draper, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics. Blue Moon will be sent into lunar orbit using the New Glenn launcher that Jeff Bezos’ company has been developing since 2017. NASA will pay up to $3.4 billion for this HLS, while Blue Origin will invest even more due to the commercial rationale of the contract. Indeed, the initial sum paid by the agency covers the development of Blue Moon, an uncrewed automatic test and its use for the crewed Artemis V mission (scheduled for the end of 2029 at the earliest). As required by commercial rationale, Blue Origin will bill for a turnkey service for the other missions.

Blue Moon will therefore not replace SpaceX’s lunar version Starship planned for Artemis III and IV. After Artemis V, NASA will ideally have two landers under contract, which will be assigned future flights. The idea, already applied for cargo and manned flights to the ISS, consists of having two vessels from two service providers in order to benefit from operational flexibility (one is available if the other has a technical problem) while maintaining price competition.
The other major idea is that these landers can make multiple trips between the Gateway station and the Moon, leading to budget savings through reuse. 

Artwork of Blue Origin showing its Blue Moon lander. The inhabited part for the astronauts is closest to the surface. The section above houses the liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks. Blue Moon is to enter service for the Artemis V Moon mission .
© Blue Origin


The previous version of Blue Moon, the one proposed in 2020, but rejected in 2021, placed the pressurised crew cabin at the top of the lander.
© Blue Origin

Compared to its 2021 proposal, Blue Origin has revised its design, placing the inhabited part “at the bottom” of Blue Moon, facilitating access to the surface. The ladder is indeed much more sensible. The section housing the liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks is therefore mainly located above. The choice of liquid hydrogen requires its storage at -252 ° C, which represents a technological challenge for flights lasting several weeks to several months (Blue Moon will wait in orbit for the astronauts to arrive and added to this should be stays on the Moon of one to two weeks and perhaps longer). In addition, it is necessary to fill Blue Moon’s tanks in Selene orbit, which means a transfer of propellants from a cargo vehicle (on which Lockheed Martin is working). Liquid hydrogen, by its temperature and small molecular size (an ideal recipe for leaks), constitutes an additional technological challenge for such a transfer operation.

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