This approach gives companies more flexibility and may save NASA money.
In contrast to Apollo, where the giant Saturn 5 rocket carried all of the pieces needed for a moon landing, NASA this time will employ a more complex choreography for the new missions, named Artemis. (In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo.)
First, NASA will construct a lunar outpost called Gateway. It will orbit the moon in a highly elliptical path that comes as close as 1,000 miles and swings as far out as 43,500 miles. Then the pieces of the landing system will be sent to the Gateway.
The landing system will consist of three pieces — a transfer module that moves the astronauts and the other pieces of the lander from the Gateway to an orbit much closer to the moon; a descent module that guides the lander to the lunar surface; and an ascent module that lifts the astronauts back into space after their stay on the moon.
When all of the pieces are in the place, the astronauts are to launch in an Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System rocket to the Gateway where they will board the lander for the moon. They are expected to land near the moon’s South Pole and spend about a week there.
But in the compressed timelines — after revising a couple of drafts, NASA issued a final call for proposals on Sept. 30, and companies must send in submissions by Nov. 1 — some companies realized that they might not have all the pieces to put together a strong proposal.
Blue Moon was originally designed for taking heavy cargo, not people, to the moon. The company also does not yet have experience with sending people to space. “A national priority requires a national team, so we brought what we feel is best in class to the job,” said Brent Sherwood, the vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin.
At the same time, Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion capsule, had concentrated its lunar development efforts on the ascent module. “We strongly believe that the best way to safely and quickly accomplish this lunar landing is to leverage existing human-rated technology from Orion,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager for commercial civil space at Lockheed Martin.