Could Blue Origin Actually Beat SpaceX to the Moon?

Could Blue Origin Actually Beat SpaceX to the Moon?

Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos, is finally setting some ambitious timelines, saying it plans to conduct an uncrewed Moon landing in as little as a year from now, deploying a demonstration version of its Blue Moon Mark 1 (MK1) cargo lander. This ramps up the space rivalry big time, putting Bezos head-to-head with Musk in a potential lunar showdown.

John Couluris, senior vice president for lunar permanence at Blue Origin, discussed these plans during an interview on CBC’s 60 Minutes, which aired on Sunday, March 3. “We’re expecting to land on the Moon between 12 and 16 months from today,” he said. “I understand I’m saying that publicly, but that’s what our team is aiming towards.”

Couluris knows he needs to be careful with his phrasing; a Congressional memo recently accused Rocket Lab of misrepresenting the launch readiness of its upcoming Neutron rocket to “gain competitive advantage” against rival bidders for a Space Force contract. Overly optimistic wording can cost a company lucrative deals, but Blue Origin is making a concerted effort to shed its image as the company that likes to take its sweet time.

The upcoming pathfinding mission, known as MK1-SN001, is meant to showcase various capabilities of the MK1 cargo vehicle. Focusing on key tests will be crucial, including checking the BE-7 engine, cryogenic fluid power and propulsion systems, avionics, ensuring steady communication links, and achieving precise landings within 328 feet (100 meters) accuracy. After the pathfinder mission, MK1 will be offered to customers, but MK1-SN001 will also serve as a critically important test in verifying the technologies needed for Blue Origin’s Human Landing System, known as Blue Moon, which it’s building for NASA.

The newly stated timeline of just 12 to 16 months from now comes as a surprise, given that the project only officially began in May 2023, when NASA announced the $US3.4 billion contract with Blue Origin to develop a second Moon lander for its Artemis missions. Blue Moon Mark 1 is included in the agreement—a lunar cargo lander meant to pave the way for the human-friendly version. NASA contracts for the first human landing system were previously awarded to SpaceX, for Artemis 3 and 4, valued at $US2.89 billion and $US1.15 billion, respectively.

In contrast to the single-use MK1, the 52-foot-tall (16-meter) Blue Moon is designed for repeat missions. It will transport astronauts to the lunar surface and then bring them back to lunar orbit. Significantly, Blue Origin intends to launch Blue Moons 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 company’s ambitious timeline is also surprising given that it has yet to launch its 320-foot (98-meter) New Glenn rocket—the designated launch vehicle for both MK1 and Blue Moon. That said, Blue Origin raised its rocket for the first time during recent tests at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 36 in Florida. Its inaugural launch could happen later this year. Finally.

The bold new timelines and Blue Origin’s markedly more assertive approach are not entirely unexpected. Last year, the company hired former Amazon executive David Limp as CEO, bringing him in from Amazon to accelerate development. Under previous CEO Bob Smith, who stepped down after six years of service, the company was often criticized for its ultra-cautious, snail’s pace approach to spaceflight. Blue Origin may or may not hit the timelines disclosed by Couluris, but it’s certainly wanting to give the impression that it’s trying.

Blue Origin is not going it alone, forming the National Team consisting of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics. NASA wants the fully reusable four-person Blue Moon lander for the Artemis 5 mission, currently scheduled for 2029.


SpaceX and NASA intend to leverage Starship as the human landing system for Artemis 3 and 4, scheduled for 2026 and 2028. Artemis 3 was originally supposed to happen in 2025, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office warned of potential delays, saying SpaceX has made limited progress in developing the technologies required to “store and transfer propellant while in orbit,” as a “critical aspect” of the company’s plan “is launching multiple tankers that will transfer propellant to a depot in space before transferring that propellant to the human landing system.” In January, NASA made it official, saying Artemis 3 won’t happen until 2026 at the earliest due to these and other delays.

It’s not entirely clear if SpaceX will meet the required timelines, as Starship remains a rocket under development, let alone a human-rated landed system; the experimental rocket has flown on two tests to date, with a third pending. Importantly, SpaceX needs to perform a demo mission to the Moon prior to Artemis 3, the timeline of which is entirely ambiguous at this point. It’s conceivable, though certainly not guaranteed, that Blue Origin’s pending MK1-SN001 mission will happen before SpaceX’s uncrewed demo on the Moon. That would be very interesting, adding more fuel to the Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos rivalry.

As far as NASA is concerned, it’s all good. Speaking to 60 Minutes during the same episode, NASA associate administrator Jim Free noted the importance of having access to multiple lunar landers. “If we have a problem with one, we’ll have another one to rely on,” he said. “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.”

The space race between SpaceX and Blue Origin is—finally—heating up. And there’s even more to this story. As Ars Technica notes, rumors are swirling that Blue Origin is staffing up for an undisclosed project to develop a next-gen spacecraft, one that would rival SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Sierra Space’s upcoming Dream Chaser space plane. Bring it on, I say.

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