Blue Origin partners with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Draper to build lunar lander


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At a science conference yesterday Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin has formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to propose building a manned lunar lander for NASA.

In the first major update on the company’s lander program since May, Bezos said Blue Origin has assembled a “national team” of aerospace contractors to develop, build and fly the three-stage spacecraft, which is based on Blue Origin’s previous work on the Blue Moon landing system.

“Blue Origin is the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin is building the ascent stage, Northrop Grumman is building the transfer element and Draper is doing the GNC (guidance, navigation and control),” Bezos said Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “We could not ask for better partners. Blue Origin, in addition to being the prime, is going to build the descent element.”

Blue Origin is competing for a NASA contract to develop a crewed lunar lander, or Human Landing System, for the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by the end of 2024.

This partnership reminds me of the way the aerospace industry functioned before the arrival of SpaceX. No one would compete. Instead, they would meet like a cartel and divvy up the work so that everyone had a share. The result was that very little new stuff got built, and over time the entire industry began to die.

The goal of this partnership now seems aimed at Congress and convincing legislators (especially the Democrats who control the House) to drop their opposition to Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal and fund it. Whether this will work remains unknown, and will likely have to wait until after the results of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, it is very interesting that Blue Origin is the prime contractor, considering how very very little Blue Origin has so far achieved in space. I wonder if Bezos has committed some of his personal capital to this venture (more than $2.8 billion cash intended for his space ventures), and doled it out to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper as an incentive to become subcontractors.

Bezos’ presentation also provided an update on Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine, designed as part of this lunar lander. It appears however that he said nothing about the BE-4 engine that the company is building for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and its own New Glenn rocket. Except for one update in August, there has been little said about this engine in about a year and a half. As this engine is key to the entire company’s financial future, this silence makes me continue to wonder if it has issues.

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4 comments

  • Scott M.

    Michael Sheetz on Twitter has a video from their presentation showing one half of a New Glenn fairing getting transferred into an autoclave. It’s a lot bigger than I expected.

    I’m well past worried about the dearth of info on the BE-4 as well as the glacial launch pace of their New Shepard. I have no idea why they’re moving so slow.

  • Wodun

    It is like Bezos has learned a lesson from SLS, it is incredibly hard to cancell a government program. He works like crazy to be like one of these contractors and worm his way into the industry and tie strings to all of his competitors. Then when he starts getting government contracts, they wont get cancelled either. Because his competitors will rely on BO, it will give him enormous power over the industry. Some will go out of business, some absorbed by BO, and some will be serfs.

    There are people who look at the system and try to find ways to route around it and there are others who embrace the system and find ways to route through it.

  • Chris Lopes

    @Wodun
    That may be what is intended but it might not actually get anything to the Moon. Like SLS, it is likely to suck up vast quantities of government money without much to show for it. SpaceX is actually putting things in space. Blue Origin is still just planning to.

  • Edward

    I have a different take on this. Blue Origin is not a large company and may be hard pressed to do all the work itself. It does not have all the expertise needed, and these other companies seem to be bringing these to the team. Although the formation of teams reduces the number of competitors, creating partnerships may be necessary, for now, for the new companies that lack experience.

    A major reason that aerospace in America was beginning to die was a lack of government customers. The peace dividend that Bush and Clinton foretold required mergers among the aerospace companies — the corporate heads were informed in the early 1990s that there would be fewer of them (corporate heads) in the next half decade or so, and it came to pass.

    A real problem for space is that NASA performed functions that rightly belonged to commercial companies. NASA had been handed the goal of landing man on the Moon, but took most of the operational portions of space, and the Space Shuttle only made matters worse, nearly killing America’s launch industry. Orbital Sciences had a difficult time competing, and others could not find investors in order to establish commercial operations. After half a century of usurping commercial operations, NASA is finally handing over some of the functions that should have been commercial all along, and investors are finally beginning to fund these endeavors.

    A problem is that the existing companies are set up, through policies and operational rules, to operate in the heritage ways, and the new companies are not yet experienced enough to take the lead in all the areas that should have been commercial since before 1980.

    SpaceX does not have the money to waste on long development programs, so it develops items quickly, though not as quickly as originally and optimistically stated. Blue Origin does not yet have a corporate culture of rapid development, and neither do the companies that it is partnering with. This is another problem that the aerospace industry has, and it makes development more expensive than it needs to be, which results in an expensive space industry.

    I suspect that the other partnering companies allow Blue Origin as the prime contractor so that the other companies will not take much heat should the project take too long or cost too much. I suspect that the other companies expect schedule slip and budget overruns, because that is standard operating procedure for them anyway.

    I’m not yet concerned about the BE-4 engine development. It is not needed for a little while longer, so its schedule is not yet critical. Its development may be largely over and testing may be proceeding well. I think we would hear about it if it were running so late that it caused slips in the Vulcan or New Glenn rockets.

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