- By Jonathan Amos
- BBC Science Correspondent
The US space agency has recruited a second billionaire to help it return astronauts to the moon.
NASA is already working with Elon Musk’s SpaceX on a lander system based on the new Starship rocket that will land as early as 2025.
It has also now awarded Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos a contract to build a lander to carry a crew to the lunar surface later this decade.
His company, Blue Origin, will produce a more traditional-looking car.
Mr. Bezos will get help from some of the well-known names in the US aerospace sector, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper and Astrobotic.
Blue Origin got the contract in competition with Dynetics and Northrop Grumman.
Bezos, which is based in Kent, Washington, will receive just over $3.4 billion from NASA as part of the contract. The company will spend “far more than $3.4 billion” of its own money on the project.
“We go to the Moon, to learn, to survive, to innovate, to create all these things to succeed on the Moon, and to go to Mars,” said agency administrator Bill Nelson.
“The great adventure of humankind in the universe is here. This is part of it.”
It has now been more than 50 years since the last time astronauts set foot on the moon.
NASA has laid out a roadmap for achieving a more sustainable human presence on Earth’s natural satellite next time.
The agency’s Artemis program envisions weeks remaining on the lunar surface rather than just days, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.
SpaceX has been told to land two astronauts at the moon’s south pole in late 2025 or 2026, and then again in 2028. These are the Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 missions.
The Blue Origin car, which is 16 meters high and weighs 45 tons, is called “Blue Moon”. You will perform the mission on Artemis V, which is scheduled to occur no earlier than 2029.
“Before the first crew landing happens, we’re going to land on a replica of that lander before that — one year in advance. So, we’re going to test the full landing systems and the full architecture before any astronauts get into the vehicle,” he explained. John Colouris, Vice President of Lunar Transportation for Blue Origin.
Artemis I actually happened, in November last year: an unmanned test of a NASA rocket and capsule that will carry astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon. Artemis II is scheduled for next year and will see a crew of four make a simple loop around the moon.
For all manned missions, the idea is for astronauts to transfer to a dedicated lander waiting for them in lunar orbit. They would descend to the surface in these vehicles, complete their exploration and then come back again.
Towards the end of the decade, NASA intends to perform transfers at a new space station over the Moon called Gateway.
SpaceX was awarded its contract in 2021. It wants to use a different version of the massive, next-generation Starship rocket system, which debuted four weeks ago.
The first flight was terminated after four minutes when the car spun out of control. But SpaceX is already talking about a second outing this summer.
Starship readiness is one of the key factors that will determine whether NASA can keep the Artemis program on track. Currently, many commentators consider the first manned landing on the Moon in late 2025 to be a very ambitious goal.
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