NASA Lays Out Revised Approach for Future Human Lunar Landing Systems

NASA Lays Out Revised Approach for Future Human Lunar Landing Systems

NASA continues to work its way through how to procure Human Landing Systems to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the surface as part of the Artemis program. SpaceX won a contract to build one for the first Artemis landing, but NASA plans several more and wants a second provider to ensure competition and redundancy. Today the agency said it will solicit proposals through a Sustaining Lunar Development contract that modifies previously announced plans. The lunar landings are a step towards sending people to Mars. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he expects that to happen in the late 2030s or 2040s.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System on the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

NASA is procuring HLS through public-private partnerships where it defines requirements, but the contractors choose how to design systems that meet those requirements and retain ownership of them. NASA shares the costs through milestone-based fixed price contracts and guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services.

The commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that supply the International Space Station were procured that way.

In April 2021, NASA chose SpaceX to build an HLS for Artemis III, the first mission to return astronauts to the Moon’s surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. Originally it wanted to choose two contractors at that time, but Congress provided only 25 percent of the FY2021 funding requested for HLS and it couldn’t afford two.

That contract, “NextSTEP Appendix H Option A,” is for SpaceX to build two Starship landers, one as an uncrewed demonstrator for launch in 2024 and the other to carry two astronauts to the surface on the Artemis III mission in 2025. NASA will launch the crew in an Orion capsule on a Space Launch System rocket, but SLS/Orion can only get as far as lunar orbit. Orion and Starship will dock in lunar orbit. Starship will take two astronauts to the surface and then back to Orion for the return flight home.

Lisa Watson-Morgan, HLS program manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, told reporters today that SpaceX is making “good progress” on that contract.

SpaceX had two competitors for that award: Dynetics, and a National Team led by Blue Origin with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Dynetics and Blue Origin protested the award to the Government Accountability Office, but lost. Blue Origin then sued NASA in federal court and also lost.

Both companies still are interested in building lunar landers, however, as are Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman separately from Blue Origin. All four, plus SpaceX, won “Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services” (LETS) contracts, “NextSTEP Appendix N,” last September to mature concepts for future human landing systems.

In the meantime, NASA relooked at its requirements and future lunar landers will be different from what SpaceX is building under Option A. The newer landers must be able to carry more crew members, more mass, and dock with the Gateway space station NASA and its international partners plan to build in lunar orbit.

NASA also decided to separate development and demonstration from buying services as was envisioned in LETS. Watson-Morgan said “We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the Moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market.”

Watson-Morgan said NASA will release a draft Request for Proposals this month for the Sustaining Lunar Development program. NASA’s press release says the final RFP will be issued in the summer.

The solitication, “NextSTEP Appendix P,” open to all companies except SpaceX, will be to build an uncrewed demonstration lander and a crewed lander for launch in 2026 or 2027.

NASA is negotiating a separate contract with SpaceX under Appendix H Option B. That work will proceed in parallel with the Sustaining Lunar Development winner. Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said SpaceX will not be required to build an uncrewed demonstration lander, presumably because it already will have flown two landers by then.

In statements March 23, Blue Origin and Dynetics both said they will bid on the new contract.

Blue Origin is thrilled that NASA is creating competition by procuring a second human lunar landing system. By doing so, NASA will establish the critical redundancy and robustness needed for establishing permanent U.S. lunar presence. Blue Origin is ready to compete and remains deeply committed to the success of Artemis. We will continue to work with NASA to achieve the United States’ goal to return to the Moon as soon as possible. — Blue Origin spokesperson

Dynetics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Leidos, is pleased to learn of NASA’s plans to move quickly toward an opportunity to compete for the development of a sustainable human lander. As a current performer on NASA’s Appendix N contract, we have made great progress in our lander design and risk reduction. We look forward to reviewing the upcoming RFP and the opportunity to participate in the Artemis campaign. — Dynetics spokesperson

In a March 24 statement to, Northrop Grumman’s Steve Krein said the company is “finalizing our plans for participation in this exciting procurement.”

“Northrop Grumman has made significant progress in technology maturation and mission risk reduction as part of the Human Landing System Appendix N funded program efforts. We are committed to continuing support for the Artemis program. The team received a briefing from NASA regarding the strategy and timeline for the follow-on Lunar Exploration Transportation Services acquisition. As a result, the company is now finalizing our plans for participation in this exciting procurement.” — Steve Krein, Vice President, Civil and Commercial Satellites, Northrop Grumman

Lockheed Martin’s Kirk Shireman also provided a statement to on March 24 saying they, too, are evaluating their options and looking forward to the competition.

“Lockheed Martin partnered with Blue Origin and the National Team on last year’s Human Lander System solicitation and we continued to partner on Appendix N.  We were very excited and encouraged to hear NASA’s plans for a second Human Lander to ensure that our Nation’s lunar ambitions will be achieved.  Since the Sustaining Lunar Development announcement was made yesterday, we’re evaluating our options and look forward to competing for this exciting capability.”  Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration at Lockheed Martin Space

SpaceX tweeted, perhaps prematurely, that NASA had selected it for an additional mission to the Moon. The NASA officials said they were still negotiating with SpaceX on Option B.

For FY2022, Congress provided the full $1.195 billion requested for HLS, but that still is only for one system, although appropriators expressed support for competition in report language. Nelson hoped to get $5.4 billion more for HLS through the infrastructure bills, but that didn’t happen.

More recently, Nelson has been saying the FY2023 budget request will include a big boost for HLS. He reiterated that today. The budget request is expected to be released early next week. It isn’t clear why he decided to make this announcement today instead of waiting a few more days so the figures would be publicly available.

NASA is planning for sustained exploration and use of the Moon in collaboration with international and commercial partners. Nelson said that the agency plans one human lunar landing per year “over a decade or so,” which implies 10 landers would meet its needs, but conceivably other countries or commercial interests might require more.

For NASA, the Moon is just a steppingstone to its longer-term goal, sending humans to Mars. Nelson expects that to happen “late in the 2030s or 2040s.” That timeframe is later than many enthusiasts desire. SpaceX’s Elon Musk talks boldly about getting there this decade with Starship. Rep. Ed Perlmutter is renowned for displaying a “Mars 2033” bumper sticker at House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearings on NASA. Nelson’s late 2030s or early 2040s is probably more realistic though even that will require a great deal of technological development and money if the health and safety of the crew are considerations. Learning how to support human life in the hostile environment of space is why NASA wants to return to the Moon first.


Note: updated March 24 with the Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin statements.

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