NASA went with big names SpaceX and Blue Origin as well as lesser-known Dynetics as the three commercial companies vying to build lunar landers for its Artemis missions to return humans to the moon by 2024.
The three contracts worth $967 million are for design and development of human landing systems. They were awarded under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program. Several other companies that were vying for the contract including Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. did not make the cut.
The Artemis missions will use NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule to take off from Kennedy Space Center and enter lunar orbit. That along with the Gateway space station are part of NASA’s long-term plans to send humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972 and eventually to be able to explore farther destinations including Mars.
The new SpaceX Starship spacecraft is one of the three, to be launched to the moon on the company’s in-the-works Super Heavy rocket. Elon Musk’s stainless steel reusable spacecraft has been undergoing tests at its southeast Texas facility, with Musk pushing for orbital launches and crewed missions this year.
The proposal will be for the Starship to launch into Earth orbit, demonstrate refueling while in orbit, make its way to the moon and then rendezvous with either the Orion capsule or Gateway station for astronaut transfer.
Starship’s design allows it to land on the lunar surface in the same manner that its Falcon 9 rocket first stages return to Earth in an upright position utilizing controlled reverse-thrust descents.
Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, which is leading what it calls its “National Team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, will be moving forward with a lander similar to its proposed Blue Moon lander. Now part of a three-stage spacecraft, the Integrated Lander Vehicle gets to and from the lunar surface in a similar manner to how the Apollo landings occurred.
Northrop Grumman’s contribution will descend the lander into an orbit around the moon. Blue Origin will then use engines to make the final descent to the surface while Lockheed Martin’s contribution, which includes the crew cabin, will launch it back into space.
Dynetics, a subsidiary of aerospace and scientific research company Leidos, is working on a single system that can take the lander down to and back up from the moon. It will launch on board ULA’s Vulcan rockets, but capable of launching on any number of commercial rockets. The vehicle features a crew cabin that would be close to the surface. It too will be able to dock with both the Orion capsule and Gateway station.
“With these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, including the incredible moment when we will see the first woman set foot on the lunar surface,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press release. “This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system, and now we have companies on contract to do the work for the Artemis program.”
The three contracts are fixed cost contracts for the next 10 months of development with NASA personnel working alongside. They will come back in February 2021, at which point NASA will choose which companies will move forward with initial demonstration missions with final decisions on which companies make actual crewed demonstration missions to the moon later.
The choice of three contractors pursuing the landers falls in line with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program of not putting all of its eggs in one basket. NASA has said it wants at least two commercial partners for its sustained presence on the moon.
“We are on our way,” said Douglas Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington. “With these awards, we begin an exciting partnership with the best of industry to accomplish the nation’s goals.”