It won’t just be SpaceX going to the moon if NASA officials get their wish. That could be a boon to Jeff Bezos’ space dreams.
As part of Artemis, NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the moon, in 2019 the agency planned to hire two companies to provide the landers to take its astronauts from orbit to the moon’s surface. But with insufficient funding from Congress, the agency decided in April of last year to give only one contract to SpaceX.
Other companies would have the chance to compete for future missions, NASA officials said.
On Wednesday, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the space agency would soon announce a competition to develop a second lunar lander.
“I promised competition,” said Mr. Nelson, “so here it is.”
The second company would share NASA’s lunar missions — about one a year over the course of a decade or so — with SpaceX. “These are not isolated missions,” said Mr. Nelson. “Everyone will build on the previous progress.”
As with SpaceX’s contract last year, the second company would receive funding for two landings — one without astronauts to demonstrate the spacecraft’s capabilities, and then a second mission with astronauts.
Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for the development of reconnaissance systems, said the goal would be for a manned mission to take place in 2026 or 2027.
The lunar landers follow NASA’s recent approach to seek fixed-price contracts, set certain requirements but encourage innovation by allowing private companies to come up with their own designs to meet the agency’s needs and to compete on price. That approach led to the SpaceX capsule that transports astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In the past, NASA generally led the development of rockets and spacecraft, and companies were paid to carry out the plans, usually at a much higher cost.
Still, the plan for a second lunar lander depends on Congress providing funds to pay for it. Nelson said he would not discuss how much the program could cost until the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 is released early next week.
After SpaceX was declared the sole winner last year, the two companies lost: Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon founder Mr. Bezos; and Dynetics, a defense contractor — filed protests with the federal Government Accountability Office. Blue Origin’s proposal was twice as expensive as SpaceX’s and Dynetics’ proposal was even higher.
The GAO ruled against both companies.
Blue Origin then sued NASA in federal court. It lost again.
Blue Origin and Dynetics are now getting a second chance, as are other companies that want to submit proposals. Lisa Watson-Morgan, the manager of NASA’s human landing system program, said the agency planned to select a second lander early next year.
In a statement, Dynetics said the company was “glad to learn of NASA’s plans” and looked forward to reviewing its upcoming call for proposals.
Blue Origin also applauded the announcement. “Blue Origin is pleased that NASA is creating competition by purchasing a second human lunar landing system,” the company said in a statement. “Blue Origin is ready to compete and remains strongly committed to the success of Artemis.”
The requirements for the second lander will be more ambitious – more payload, longer stay on the surface – and reflect the desire for more ambitious missions on the moon.
In addition, under the existing contract with SpaceX, NASA would negotiate to build a lander that meets the new requirements, Ms Watson-Morgan said.
NASA’s journey to send astronauts back to the moon has been long and winding, and the current 2025 target for adding new U.S. footprints on the moon seems unrealistically optimistic.
Still, NASA is making progress.
A giant rocket, the Space Launch System, is now finally on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though it will remain there for now. Next month, NASA will hold a dress rehearsal for the countdown — fueling the rocket but not igniting the engines. The rocket then returns to the Vehicle Assembly Building—essentially a huge tall rocket garage—for final preparations for a crewless test launch called Artemis 1 that could take place as early as this summer. It would send a capsule, Orion, around the moon and back to Earth.
The second Artemis mission will be the first where astronauts ride in the Orion crew pod atop the SLS rocket. That flight, scheduled for May 2024, would enter orbit around the moon before returning to Earth.
The first moon landing would not take place until 2025, during Artemis 3. Four astronauts would once again launch an Orion capsule into orbit around the moon where they would dock with the SpaceX Starship spacecraft, which awaits them there. Two of the astronauts — the first woman and the first person of color, NASA says — would move to Starship, then land at the moon’s south pole and stay on the surface for about a week.
SpaceX has launched a series of Starship prototypes from its South Texas location to an altitude of about six miles to show how it would collapse after re-entering the atmosphere to slow down and then land vertically. In May, after four failed attempts, one of the prototypes landed successfully. SpaceX aims to launch the first orbital flight of a spacecraft in the coming months.
The goal of returning astronauts to the moon was revived during the Trump administration. NASA officials then, and now under the Biden administration, have insisted that the target this time is not the end itself, but the beginning of larger human explorations of the moon, and ultimately further into the solar system.
With Wednesday’s announcement, NASA is trying to turn that hope into an ongoing program.