Technical strengths and low cost led NASA to choose the Blue Origin lander

WASHINGTON — NASA chose Blue Origin to develop a second Artemis lunar lander because of its technical strengths such as its rigorous test flight schedule as well as its low cost.

In a source selection statement published shortly after NASA announced that it had selected Blue Origin for a Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) award on May 19, the agency explained how it chose that company’s proposal over a competing bid from Dynetics.

Jim Free, NASA’s associate officer for Exploration Systems Development, served as the source selection officer for the competition and wrote in the release that he agrees with the agency’s analysis of the proposals. “This analysis leads me to the conclusion that Blue Origin’s proposal is the most beneficial to the agency across all evaluation factors, and is consistent with the objectives of the petition,” he wrote in the signed May 8 statement.

Several aspects of Blue Origin’s proposal for a blue moon lander stood out to him. Among them are Blue Origin’s plans for a series of missions to test lander technology before the required uncrewed test flight of the lander. The statement specifically mentions “Probe Landing Missions” in 2024 and 2025 that would mature key elements that currently have low Technical Readiness Levels (TRLs) prior to uncrewed testing.

“I find this aspect of the proposal compelling – it’s a forward-thinking solution to mature low-TRL key technologies that allows any changes to be introduced into the final design,” Frye wrote. He added that “there is no financial impact on NASA because the Pathfinder missions are funded by Blue Origin.”

The statement did not say which technologies will be demonstrated in these pathfinder missions. During the NASA conference, John Colouris, Blue Origin program manager, said the company has planned “a number of test launches and landings,” the details of which will be revealed later.

That would include the Mark 1 version of the probe, he said, “to demonstrate technologies for these future landers, before crew members get inside.” Blue Moon won’t load people until the Artemis 5 mission.

Before Artemis 5, Blue Origin will make an uncrewed landing with the same version of the probe that will transport people. Frye noted that while NASA has only required companies to perform landers for an unmanned flight test (UFT) that demonstrated accurate landing capabilities, Blue Origin is conducting full lander testing, including life support systems and the ability to launch back to Earth. The orbit of the corona is almost rectilinear.

“I find the use of a fully manned landing configuration for the UFT to be another compelling aspect of technical demonstration – it is a very useful mission force for NASA because it will reduce risk to the crewed demonstration mission,” he wrote.

The source selection statement also identified significant strengths in the proposal as “excess capabilities” in the lander that allow it to perform additional missions, as well as a business approach that includes a significant investment and “strong commitment to future cost reductions.” Kolores said at the press conference that the company will contribute significantly more to the development of Blue Moon than NASA’s $3.4 billion.

However, NASA has identified two weaknesses in the Blue Origin proposal. One involves its own communications system, which runs the risk of not meeting the agency’s requirements for continuous communications. The other is the company’s integrated master table, which Free writes “contains many inconsistencies and omissions.”

Dynetics’ proposal has strengths for offering redundant capabilities, such as Blue Origin, for other classes of landing missions, and for a business approach that envisions other agents and missions for its landing engineering. “Dynetics’ business approach is flexible in the concepts presented and aligned with continuing to build the commercial space economy,” Free stated.

However, NASA has raised concerns about whether the Dynetics lander will meet all the requirements, citing some confusion between the two different landers mentioned in the proposal. Frey wrote “I am very interested in this proposed approach and consider these shortcomings to be a significant weakness as I am not clear on what capabilities will be offered in the CDM” or the crew display mission, stating that it is a significant weakness.

Another significant vulnerability is that Dynetics proposed eight major technologies mature in a single test flight in 2027, nine months before the CDM review. He cautioned that this approach “allows very little opportunity to influence the construction and operation of the CDM lander should design or operational changes be required while maintaining the schedule.”

The statement did not disclose the price Dynetics offered for the probe, but the statement noted that it was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s proposal.

In a statement to SpaceNews, Dynetics and its parent company Leidos appeared to accept the outcome of the contest and showed no sign that they would file a protest. Blue Origin and Dynetics protested SpaceX’s selection for the original human landing system award, but this was rejected by the Government Accountability Office.

“Assisting NASA in the inspiring effort to return to the Moon will continue to be a priority for Leidos. The Artemis missions require multiple partners to succeed, and our Leidos-Dynetics team is committed to continuing to assist with these critical missions,” citing work on numerous projects and plans to bid on the Lunar rover. Terrain in later Artemis missions.

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