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Blue Origin's moon deal with Lockheed, other firms, signals new era

By Paul Brinkmann
Blue Origin's moon deal with Lockheed, other firms, signals new era
Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (R) announced Tuesday a new partnership of companies to mount a lunar landing mission. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin

Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Blue Origin announced Tuesday a new partnership with old-guard aerospace firms Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to land on the moon -- signalling a new era in U.S. space exploration.

Until now, Blue Origin functioned as a standalone startup, funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' billions. It was seen chiefly as a competitor to new space companies like SpaceX.

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With Tuesday's announcement, Blue Origin leads a team in NASA's aggressive plan to return people to the moon by 2024, and to establish a moon base. The partnership and the new moon contract will test NASA's recent strategy to privatize as much as possible.

"We'll be working alongside NASA and providing the service to them," said Rob Chambers, director of strategy for human spaceflight at Lockheed. "It's a closer partnership with NASA and spreads responsibility more evenly."

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Chambers said the team represents the "best athletes" for different parts of the trip, like the legs of a relay race at a track event.

As the shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA began moving toward a more commercialized model.

"NASA now tells us what they want, rather than how they want it," Chambers said.

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SpaceX continues to pursue its own next-generation rocket and spaceship, the Starship, which will have a built-in habitat. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said Starship will carry people to the moon in a matter of years.

SpaceX didn't respond immediately to questions Tuesday about whether it plans to compete with Blue Origin's team for the NASA contract.

Blue Origin said it will build the descent module -- it's Blue Moon lander -- that will be stacked with other modules. It also will lead program management along with systems and mission engineering.Northrop will build a transfer module that will guide the Blue Moon from NASA's planned lunar gateway that will orbit the moon.

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Lockheed will build a reusable ascent module that will launch back into space from the lunar surface. Lockheed also will lead crewed flight operations and training. Lockheed built NASA's Orion capsule, which is an alternative vehicle that still might be used in lunar missions.

Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics.

Of the giants in defense and space contracting, Boeing was noticeably missing from Blue Origin's team. Boeing, like SpaceX, is in the midst of testing its own crewed capsule for missions to the International Space Station.

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Chambers said the Blue Origin team will pursue the cooperative approach dictated by NASA for the so-called Artemis lunar missions -- requiring that designs be made public for any parts or systems that interface with the gateway and other modules. However, he said internal components of each module can still be proprietary.

Draper noted in an announcement that it provided navigation systems for Apollo missions 50 years ago, which helped avoid hazards such as boulders, slopes and uneven surfaces.

"Draper occupies a special position within the space ecosystem that gives the company deep expertise in what's required-and how to deliver-commercial technologies that will perform in space," said Seamus Tuohy, principal director of space systems at Draper.

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