NASA Ready to Announce Second Human Lunar Lander Winner

NASA Ready to Announce Second Human Lunar Lander Winner

NASA is about to reveal the winner of the second Public-Private Partnership agreement to provide lunar lander services for astronauts heading to the lunar surface. SpaceX won the first contract in 2021, but NASA wants two providers to ensure redundancy and competition as it embarks on “sustainable” exploration of the Moon. NASA will not own the landers, but instead will purchase services as it does for delivering cargo and ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station.

NASA will make the announcement on Friday morning, May 19, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Only two contenders for this second Human Landing System (HLS) procurement have publicly come forward. One team is led by Blue Origin, the other by Dynetics, a Leidos company.

Both led teams that lost to SpaceX in the first round, but what companies are on which team has changed. Blue Origin’s original “National Team” included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. This time it’s Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Draper, Astrobotic and Honeybee.

Boeing bid separately last time, but was disqualified for reasons NASA never made clear.

Northrop Grumman is teamed with Dynetics this time.

NASA is procuring many elements of the Artemis program through Public-Private Partnerships. This particular procurement is NextStep-2 Appendix P: Human Landing System Sustaining Lunar Development or just “SLD.”

The companies previously worked with NASA through Appendix N, the solicitation that led to SpaceX’s selection in April 2021. SpaceX is developing Starship to serve multiple markets, including HLS services for NASA.

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

NASA had planned to choose two companies at that time, but Congress appropriated only enough money for one. SpaceX was the low bidder by far: $2.9 billion compared to $6 billion for Blue Origin and $8.5-9 billion for Dynetics.

The premise behind these Public-Private Partnerships is that the company shares the development cost with the government. In return the government guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services while the company retains ownership of the system. NASA expects the company to find other customers to close the business case.

Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, and Dynetics both protested the choice of SpaceX to the Government Accountability Office, but lost. Blue Origin went further, suing NASA in federal court, but also lost. During that process, Bezos offered to put in more of his own money, but it was too late. How much he’s willing to include in this new offer is a matter of great conjecture.

NASA’s original award to SpaceX was for just one landing — the Artemis III mission that will return American astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. Officially that is expected to take place in late 2025, though many are skeptical that deadline can be met. In November, NASA expanded SpaceX’s award to include a second landing on Artemis IV, now planned for 2028 according to NASA’s FY2024 budget request. That’s a slip of about a year.

NASA’s goal is one landing per year thereafter, but it is not clear for how many years. NASA’s longer-term goal is sending people to Mars, not remaining on the Moon. The sustained lunar operations would be conducted by private companies and international partners who want to mine lunar resources or conduct science operations there. Apparently Blue Origin and Dynetics — and perhaps others who have not come forward publicly — believe there will be sufficient non-NASA business to make the venture profitable.

To date, NASA has successfully completed one mission in the Artemis program, Artemis I. That was a 25-day uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft in November-December 2022.

A crewed test flight around the Moon, Artemis II, is scheduled for late 2024. NASA just named the crew for that mission — three NASA astronauts and one from the Canadian Space Agency. They will not even orbit the Moon, much less land on it.  As a test flight, they will be on a free-return trajectory that brings them back to Earth even if the Orion engines do not perform as planned.

The crew of Artemis II, clockwise from front:  NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman (Commander), Christina Koch (mission specialist), and Victor Glover (pilot), and Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jeremy Hansen (mission specialist). Photo Credit: Josh Valcarcel

Canada was the first country to join the Artemis program as an international partner. Japan and Europe later signed up. All have a long history of cooperation with NASA including on the International Space Station. They will jointly build the much smaller Gateway space station that will orbit the Moon and be a hub for astronauts traveling down to and back from the surface. Europe also provides the Service Module for the Orion spacecraft as part of a barter agreement related to its ISS operations.

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