An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon Mark 1 lander on the moon. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is aiming to send an uncrewed lander to the surface of the moon in the next 12 to 16 months, according to the executive in charge of the development program.

John Couluris, senior vice president for lunar permanence at Blue Origin, provided an update on the company’s moon lander program on CBS’ “60 Minutes” news program on Sunday.

“We’re expecting to land on the moon between 12 and 16 months from today,” Couluris said. “I understand I’m saying that publicly, but that’s what our team is aiming towards.”

Couluris was referring to a pathfinder version of Blue Origin’s nearly three-story-tall Blue Moon Mark 1 cargo lander, which is taking shape at Blue Origin’s production facility in Huntsville, Ala. The Pathfinder Mission would demonstrate the MK1’s capabilities — including its hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine, its precision landing system and its ability to deliver up to 3 tons of payload anywhere on the moon.

Blue Origin envisions building multiple cargo landers, as well as a crewed version of the Blue Moon lander that could transport NASA astronauts to and from the lunar surface. The MK1 cargo lander is designed for a single launch and delivery, but the crewed lander would be reusable.

“We’ll launch them to lunar orbit, and we’ll leave them there,” Couluris explained. “And we’ll refuel them in orbit, so that multiple astronauts can use the same vehicle back and forth.”

The Pathfinder Mission would be funded by Blue Origin, but NASA is providing support for other Blue Moon missions. Blue Origin’s $3.4 billion contract with NASA calls for the crewed lander to be available for the Artemis 5 moon mission by 2029, with an uncrewed test flight as part of the buildup.

The in-space refueling operation would make use of a cislunar transporter, built by Lockheed Martin, that could travel between low Earth orbit and lunar orbit with supplies. “We are now building with NASA the infrastructure to ensure lunar permanency,” Couluris said.

NASA is providing funding for the Blue Moon landing system as an alternative to SpaceX’s Starship system, which is under development at SpaceX’s Starbase in South Texas. The crewed Starship lunar lander is scheduled to come into play for Artemis 3, a milestone landing mission that’s currently scheduled for 2026.

The “60 Minutes” segment focused on questions surrounding the schedule and cost for the Artemis program — including questions raised by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General. Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator, acknowledged that the challenges relating to sending astronauts to the moon were “daunting.”

Free said that’s why it’s important to support the development of multiple commercial lunar landers. “If we have a problem with one, we’ll have another one to rely on,” he said on the show. “If we have a dependency on a particular aspect in SpaceX or Blue Origin, and it doesn’t work out, then we have another lander that can take our crews.”

Blue Origin plans to send the MK1 lander to the moon on its reusable New Glenn rocket, which is also under development. A couple of weeks ago, a pathfinder version of that rocket was raised on a Florida launch pad for the first time, and it’s currently going through a series of cryogenic tanking tests.

Blue Origin CEO Dave Limp, who was brought over to the company from Amazon last year to accelerate work on New Glenn, said in a LinkedIn post that he’s “looking forward to bringing this heavy-lift capacity to our customers later this year.” One of the early launches is tasked with sending a pair of NASA probes to Mars.

During last week’s Lake Nona Impact Forum in Florida, Bezos shared the stage with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to discuss the Blue Moon lander, New Glenn rocket and the connection between Amazon’s origins and Bezos’ goals for Blue Origin.

“I could only start Amazon because the heavy-lifting infrastructure was already in place,” Bezos said. “This is what I want to do for space. I want to take the financial winnings that I got from starting Amazon … and use it to build heavy infrastructure for space, so that the next generation of entrepreneurs can do what I did with Amazon.”

New Glenn, which has faced years of schedule delays, won a strong endorsement from NASA’s chief. “This is a monster of a rocket,” Nelson said.

[05 Mar 2024] Blue Origin targets 2025 for cargo lander’s inaugural moon trip, with humans to follow
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