NASA has chosen SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics to design and build three lunar landing systems that can take humans to the surface of the Moon. The three companies will work on their designs over the next year, and eventually, NASA will select one lander to take the first woman and the next man to the lunar surface.
These landers are a critical part of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s initiative to send humans back to the Moon by 2024. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to accelerate its plans to return to the Moon, and NASA has been working hard to make that happen. For the last decade, NASA has been developing a giant deep-space rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and a crew capsule called Orion to take people into deep space. The biggest missing piece of the equation was a lander to take humans down to the Moon.
Now, NASA has awarded lunar lander contracts to three competitors. The contracts are worth $967 million combined — though the companies will put in some of their own funds for development — and they will last 10 months as the companies refine their designs. Next February, NASA will decide which companies will do demonstration missions and eventually send their landers into space. NASA will also then procure the rockets needed to get the landers to the Moon.
The three lander designs are all distinct. Blue Origin’s lander is the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV), which is based on the Blue Moon lander the company unveiled for the first time last year. However, Blue Origin’s lander will actually be built by a team of companies that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. All four companies will provide hardware for the landing system, and the vehicle will be capable of launching on the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket, which is currently in development.
Dynetics, a company based in Huntsville, Alabama, has a design called the Dynetics Human Landing System that it plans to make with various commercial partners. Looking a bit like a rabbit, the lander design calls for two large solar arrays that extend upward, along with a very low-hanging crew cabin, making it easy for astronauts to get down to the surface easily. The Dynetics lander is also designed to launch on ULA’s future Vulcan rocket.
Meanwhile, SpaceX bid its next-generation spacecraft Starship, which the company has been developing in Boca Chica, Texas, for the last few years. Starship is designed to land on other worlds, like the Moon and Mars, by using its main engines to lower itself down to a hard surface. To get down to the surface of the Moon, an elevator would lower astronauts from the top of the landed Starship, according to a rendering of the vehicle.
Notably absent from the lander selections was Boeing, a longtime NASA contractor that is developing the Space Launch System for NASA. Boeing has struggled recently with its spacecraft development, which may have contributed to NASA’s decision. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is many years behind schedule and has suffered from numerous cost overruns. Meanwhile, a crew capsule that Boeing is developing for NASA, called the CST-100 Starliner, suffered from multiple software glitches during its first demonstration mission in space, preventing the vehicle from docking with the International Space Station as it was supposed to.
The awarding of these contracts means that NASA is tweaking its plans for Artemis. The original plan involved sending humans to a new space station that NASA wants to build in the Moon’s orbit called the Gateway. The Gateway would serve as a training outpost, where astronauts could live and do research for short periods of time. Astronauts could then board landers docked to the Gateway and ride down to the lunar surface. The Gateway has long been touted as a way to create a sustainable presence around the Moon, making the Artemis mission different from the Apollo program of the 1960s and ‘70s that was all about quick trips to the Moon and back.
With these awards, NASA is bypassing the Gateway, at least for the initial landing on the Moon’s surface, slated for 2024. “I want to emphasize for everybody on the phone how important the Gateway is for the sustainable architecture and for a whole host of other reasons,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said during a press conference. “It is also important to note that we have — the priority is to get to the Moon by 2024. And we believe that getting to the Moon by 2024 does not require the Gateway.”
It’s still unclear if getting rid of the Gateway will help speed things up. None of the companies selected have created a working prototype of their landing vehicles. SpaceX and Blue Origin have successfully tested various hardware needed for their landers such as the main engines, but no flight-ready landers have been built.
In the meantime, NASA is still relying on the SLS and Orion to get people to the Moon where they will conceivably dock with the finalist landing system. The SLS still has yet to fly, with its debut launch currently slated for 2021. The pandemic has also caused NASA to halt production and development of the SLS and Orion systems, which could lead to further delays. Time is definitely running out to meet the 2024 deadline, and now, the race is on to see if any of these companies can get a working lander ready in less than four years.