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An artist’s conception shows a landing system in lunar orbit. (NASA Illustration)

It’s almost as if Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos knew what was coming: His Blue Origin space venture is among 11 companies selected by NASA to conduct studies and produce prototypes of spacecraft that could carry astronauts down to the moon’s south polar region and back up by 2024.

Only a week earlier, Bezos unveiled a full-scale mockup of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander, which is designed to deliver payload or people to the lunar surface, as part of his vision to get millions of people living and working in space. At the time, he noted NASA’s accelerated plan to put humans on the moon within five years.

“I love this,” Bezos said. “It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago.”

Now the world’s richest person will be able to use some of NASA’s money to help make it so. In today’s announcement of the selection, NASA said $45.5 million would be awarded to the 11 companies under the terms of NextSTEP E contracts.

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The plan calls for the development of a transfer element that would transport astronauts from a stripped-down, moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway to low lunar orbit. There’d be a descent element that would make the landing on the moon’s surface, and an ascent element to return the astronauts to the Gateway. NASA also wants companies to work on refueling capabilities for the vehicles, probably taking advantage of hydrogen extracted from the moon’s water ice.

“To accelerate our return to the moon, we are challenging our traditional ways of doing business. We will streamline everything from procurement to partnerships to hardware development and even operations,” Marshall Smith, director for human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said in today’s news release.

“Our team is excited to get back to the moon quickly as possible, and our public/private partnerships to study human landing systems are an important step in that process,” Smith said.

As part of those partnerships, the 11 companies are required to contribute at least 20% of the total project cost. The contracts for concept studies and prototypes have a six-month term. To expedite the work, NASA is giving the go-ahead for the companies to start on their projects even while the contracts are under negotiation.

Blue Origin, which has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., has contracts to conduct studies focusing on the descent element and the transfer vehicle, and another contract to build a prototype of a transfer vehicle. And it’s safe to assume that Blue Origin’s prototype will look a lot like the mockup that Bezos showed off a week ago.

Here’s the rundown on the other 10 contractors, in alphabetical order:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne, Canoga Park, Calif.: One transfer vehicle study.
  • Boeing, Houston: One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype.
  • Dynetics, Huntsville, Ala.: One descent element study and five descent element prototypes.
  • Lockheed Martin, Littleton, Colo.: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study.
  • Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.: One descent element prototype.
  • Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Dulles, Va.: One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype.
  • OrbitBeyond, Edison, N.J.: Two refueling element prototypes.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp., Louisville, Colo., and Madison, Wis.: One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study.
  • SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.: One descent element study.
  • SSL, Palo Alto, Calif.: One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype.

NASA sees the commercial lunar landing system as separate from the hardware that’s being developed to get astronauts to the Gateway in near-rectilinear lunar orbit. That multibillion-dollar hardware development effort covers the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket as well as NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule and its European-built service module.

A follow-up solicitation, known as NextSTEP H, will be issued this summer to provide the requirements for a 2024 human landing. That solicitation will leave it up to commercial ventures to propose the concepts, hardware and integration process for lunar landers.

“This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system,” said Greg Chavers, human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. “NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

If the process follows the model set for commercial cargo and crew transport to the International Space Station, there’s likely to be more than one winner when all is said and done.

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