Blue Origin-led partnership delivers lunar lander mockup to NASA


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Capitalism in space: The Blue Origin-led partnership, which calls itself “the National Team,” has delivered to the Johnson Space Center a full scale mock-up of the manned lunar lander it is building for NASA.

The full-sized, but low-fidelity, mockup includes both the descent element, developed by Blue Origin, and ascent element, built by Lockheed Martin, and stands more than 12 meters high.

The companies developed the mockup to allow NASA astronauts and engineers to study the layout of the vehicle, including positioning of various components, and get feedback while the lander is still in an early stage of development.

While providing this mock-up to NASA for design review makes sense, I must say that I yawned when I saw the string of overly excited new reports about it from almost every mainstream news outlet. It appears that though Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have become very skilled at delivering nothing but mock-ups and promises over the past few years, both have also become very skilled at getting the press pumped up with each new mock-up and promise.

More and more does Bezos and Blue Origin remind me of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, making promises and holding spectacular fake press events, but actually achieving little. I could be wrong, but I can’t get that similarity out of my head. Blue Origin was founded in 2000, before SpaceX, and after more than twenty years it has yet to fly anything commercially. Work on its New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has apparently stalled, without ever flying humans. Its main rocket engine, the BE-4, is taking years to develop, with only test versions built, none flightworthy. And New Glenn, its orbital rocket, remains a fantasy.

I truly hope my cynicism here is unfounded. I want Blue Origin to succeed. I just wish they’d finally do something.

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10 comments

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Work on its New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has apparently stalled, without ever flying humans.

    Perhaps the many months between test flights means that they have found some serious problem with New Shepard. Even if it is unsafe for human flight, they could operate it as a sounding rocket, taking experiments or other payloads into suborbital space, as they have already done on a couple of their test flights.

    Isn’t it amazing that Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic can take so long and spend so much yet accomplish so little. You would think that they were government operations.

    Draper is listed in the embedded video as part of the Blue Origin team. Draper is part of another team, with Dynetics, to do the same thing, but with what appears to be a smaller lander, with fewer expendable parts. I like the Draper/Dynetics lander better, as there is less ladder to climb down to the surface.
    https://www.draper.com/news-releases/draper-and-dynetics-team-return-humans-moon

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    The USAF excluded Blue Origin from its last round of launch contract awards, instead going with Space X’s Falcon Heavy and the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan. Has the USAF already decided that Blue Origin is a loser?

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    Since the USAF has cut Blue Origin out of the most recent round of launch contracts, and instead going with Space X and United Launch Alliance, does that mean the USAF thinks Blue Origin is a loser?

  • Michael G. Gallagher: I’m not sure what you asked twice, but the answer is more complicated. The military insisted on awarding all launch contracts for the next six years now. With this in mind, how could they pick Blue Origin for any contracts, considering they have not launched even one test flight? It was for this same reason Northrop Grumman was rejected as well. And with both companies, the Air Force ended its development contracts as well once the contract awards were announced.

    In other words, it isn’t that the military sees Blue Origin as a loser, they don’t see them as anything, yet.

  • sippin_bourbon

    So they built on their “experience” with the Apollo program (are any of those engineers still working there?), and went from a 2 part vehicle to a 3 part vehicle.

    And how does leaving the descent vehicle on the surface make this a “permanent” base?

    Apollo on ‘roids? yes. Permanent base? Not seeing it. If we have to leave part of the vessel on the surface every time, this will be too expensive to sustain.

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon asked: “And how does leaving the descent vehicle on the surface make this a “permanent” base?

    NASA barely has funding to return to the Moon. It has no funding and no plan in place to put a permanent outpost on the Moon. The “permanent presence” idea is just that, an idea, one step up from a dream.

    Apollo on ‘roids? yes. Permanent base? Not seeing it. If we have to leave part of the vessel on the surface every time, this will be too expensive to sustain.

    Worse is the horrific expense of SLS, and the need for two launches (hopefully one being a Falcon Heavy, Starship, or New Glenn) to put anyone on the Moon. Apollo was cancelled because it was costly, and NASA’s financiers, Congress, didn’t see any advantage for them to keep going to the Moon when they could use that money to solve poverty, and it is a good thing they dropped Apollo, half a century ago, because poverty hasn’t been a problem since … any day now. Obviously, not solving poverty was well worth the loss of the science, innovation, and consumer and industrial products that we could have had. (Isn’t the solution to poverty an expansion of the economy such that everyone is employed? Instead we let in illegal aliens to take the jobs that our poor could have had.)

    At this point, NASA is just hoping to get onto the Moon, and if that means the early hardware has to be partly or wholly expendable, then that is what they are willing to do. As with SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Blue Origin, NASA is willing to make some tradeoffs in order to make progress now rather than wait until someone comes up with the perfect hardware. Even Starship isn’t perfect, but it will do for the 2020s.

    NASA is almost certainly hoping for SpaceX and Blue Origin to build reusable, inexpensive launch vehicles to make a lunar outpost a fundable reality. However, I am no longer counting on NASA to be the primary builder of lunar or Martian outposts. I think the bulk of the effort will have to fall to commercial companies that find ways to make money in space. Since making money means that there are benefits here on Earth, the expenses will be justified. Since it will be commercial companies spending their own money, the expenditures will not have to be justified to the fickle Congress.

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon,
    You wrote: “Apollo on ‘roids? yes. Permanent base? Not seeing it. If we have to leave part of the vessel on the surface every time, this will be too expensive to sustain.

    From what I have been reading and seeing in interviews, NASA Administrator Bridenstein understands this same problem. He seems to be embracing commercial space in ways that NASA has not done before. I suspect that he understands that NASA is restrained by the whims of Congress.

    Two companies are especially interested in accomplishing what NASA has had serious trouble getting Congressional funding to do: return to the Moon (Blue Origin) and colonize Mars (SpaceX). As commercial companies continue to expand their own innovations, they will have more capital, more of their own resources, to draw on than NASA has. Putting the marketplace in charge of our expansion into space would explain the effort to modify the Outer Space Treaty.

    NASA is not planning on building a replacement for ISS. Bridenstein has said that he expects NASA to be one of many customers on future commercial space stations. I expect NASA to be one of many customers on commercial, non-government Moon bases and Mars colonies.

    Congress lacks the vision that NASA has, but civilians have that vision and are willing to find ways to make them happen without spending the amount of money that government spends. We all need to get away from the idea that NASA is leading us into the future. NASA does not have the flexibility to do this for us.

    I think this mindset is why you, sippin_bourbon, are having such a hard time envisioning permanent bases on the Moon. Congress is unlikely to fund them.

  • mpthompson

    I share Bob’s concern regarding Blue Origin. As a huge fan of commercial new space and the hope that it can bring back the excitement around space that I missed out on in the ’60’s (my earliest space memories is seeing one of the Apollo returns from Skylab), Blue Origin has been very disappointing. I could be wrong, given they have an almost bottomless supply of money from Bezos, but the idiom “Big hat, no cattle” comes to mind. Or, for those with memories from the ’80s, “Where’s the beef?”.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Half of this “National Team” are the old school companies that have been sucking money out of NASA for decades. It is looking like Blue Origin wants to join the line up.

    And they are willing to let NASA take the lead.

    If they really want to win, meaning succeeded, they would take the lead, and push the boundaries. Not see that happen.

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon wrote: “If they really want to win, meaning succeeded, they would take the lead, and push the boundaries. Not see that happen.

    Forget the old-school companies. Not only are they set in their ways, but to push the boundaries they have to spend a lot of money that could cost them dearly if they fail. SpaceX is still willing to spend the money and risk the company to push boundaries. Rocket Lab and Sierra Nevada are doing similar ambitious innovation. If Bigelow comes back from Wuhan hiatus, their innovative, inexpensive space habitats should be wildly popular in the coming decade. Other new companies are working on their own innovative solutions, such as inexpensive smallsats or their launchers, and I expect some of them to succeed.

    ULA is trying to be innovative, too, by coming up with their ACES space tug and trying out reusable engines. Hopefully they will succeed, but they suffer from being owned by two heritage old-school companies.

    In addition, I expect that Starship will occasionally be used like long-term space shuttle flights, especially since SpaceX will be eager to demonstrate that it can keep a crew alive for more than half a year. If Bigelow does not return to business, then I expect to see a Starship used as a space station.

    I have great expectations for commercial space during the coming decade.

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