When U.S. vice president Mike Pence announced on Tuesday that American astronauts would return to the moon within five years “by any means necessary,” two companies working to transport astronauts to orbit and beyond were quick to raise their hands.
SpaceX boss Elon Musk tweeted that its new Starship rocket could meet the deadline, writing that it is “for sure worth giving it our best shot!” Lockheed Martin, which is developing the Orion spacecraft that will ride atop NASA’s massive Space Launch System, wrote, “With the right level of commitment, urgency and resources, humans could walk on the surface by 2024.”
But a third commercial space company has already been working quietly with NASA on technologies to bring American robots (if not yet humans) back to the moon. In October, NASA signed a previously unreported Space Act Agreement “for the purpose of collaboration with Blue Origin to advance medium-to-large commercial lunar surface lander systems.”
Under the agreement, Blue Origin promised to pay NASA nearly US $50,000 to “leverage the unique capabilities, expertise, and knowledge of NASA in multiple technology areas to help to optimally design and develop such capabilities for both NASA and commercial missions.”
Blue Origin revealed its plans for a robotic lunar lander, called Blue Moon, in early 2017. Jeff Bezos has long dreamed of shifting heavy industry into space and wrote last October that “the next logical step in this path is a return to the moon. To do this we need reusable access to the lunar surface and its resources.”
In the Space Act arrangement, NASA would provide Blue Origin with the in-space trajectory analysis software called Copernicus, to help plan Blue Moon’s journey. The agency would also supply reports and studies about a return to the moon, including surveys of potential landing sites. Blue Origin even wanted to know about the status of unopened samples of lunar rock from the Apollo missions.
At the end of the six-month project, which could come as early as next month, NASA’s technical experts would review and provide feedback on Blue Origin’s lunar lander mission plans. The company’s stated intent is to land an uncrewed spacecraft on the moon as soon as 2024, possibly as part of a multinational effort called The Moon Race.
Neither NASA nor Blue Origin immediately responded to requests for comment.
This was not the first agreement between NASA and Blue Origin concerning spacecraft beyond Earth orbit. In late 2017, the two organizations signed a vaguely worded $750,000 agreement to “[accelerate] the development and testing of critical technologies for emerging space system capabilities.” Although the agreement itself did not specify the work involved, a spreadsheet summarizing NASA’s contracts describes the project as a liquid oxygen/methane “lander propulsion collaboration.”
NASA has long experimented with such engines for future missions to the moon and Mars, and continues to seek commercial partners to develop reusable systems and spacecraft for deep-space missions. However, China is widely considered to be closer to deploying large landers and, eventually, human “taikonauts” to the moon.
Blue Origin is not the only private company building a lunar lander, although Blue Moon is by far the biggest, intended to deliver up to 4,500 kilograms (roughly 10,000 pounds) of cargo to the surface. Startup Astrobotic is working on a lander called Peregrine that could deliver a modest 35 kg, while Moon Express’s planned spacecraft might transport just 30 kg. And a tiny Israeli lander called Beresheet is currently en route to the moon, carrying a small scientific payload and a “digital time capsule.” It's expected to land on the moon on April 11.
Converting the robotic Blue Moon into a crewed lander would likely be very difficult, if not impossible. And there remains the question of how American astronauts would start their journey, given that there are no proven launch systems capable of crewed spaceflight from the United States to orbit, let alone all the way to the moon.
Realistic or not, the current U.S. administration's unbridled enthusiasm for spaceships and space soldiers suggests that, while these were Blue Origin’s first agreements with NASA for lunar lander technologies, they probably won’t be the last.
“This is a very favorable administration for going back to the moon,” says Rob Meyerson, who was president of Blue Origin from 2003 to 2017. “I’d like to think we had a part in shaping that, too.”
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.