Three Winning Bids for NASA’s Human Landing System

Three Winning Bids for NASA’s Human Landing System

Today NASA announced three winners in bids to build Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.  SpaceX and teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics will spend the next 10 months working with NASA to refine their concepts.  The total contract award for all three is $967 million for that time period.

Two other proposals, from Boeing and Vivace Corp., were not chosen. The Source Selection Statement signed by NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk includes a footnote that states “consistent with the evaluation methodology” he removed them from consideration “earlier in the source selection process.”  NASA declined to provide any further explanation other than that the two were considered “ineligible for selection or award.” Boeing issued a statement saying only that it “does not discuss its technical proposals or evaluations.”  Vivace did not reply to a request for comment.

According to an emailed response from NASA, the individual contract awards are $579 million to the Blue Origin team, $253 million to the Dynetics team, and $135 million to SpaceX.

The landers will be launched separately from the crew.  Crews will arrive in lunar orbit on Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System (SLS).  Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion; Boeing for SLS. Both are being procured through traditional cost-plus contracts and NASA will own them.

By contrast, the landers are being procured through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the International Space Station.  The companies will own the landers and NASA will simply buy services from them.  The companies are expected to pay part of the development costs themselves since they retain ownership of the systems and can sell services to other customers.

NASA’s original Artemis plan was for the crew to transfer from Orion to a small space station in lunar orbit, the Gateway, where the landers would be docked, but that plan has changed.  NASA still intends to build the Gateway, but not until later in the decade to support “sustainable” lunar operations.  For now, it is focused on getting to the Moon “fast” in order to achieve the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024, the end of a second Trump term if he is reelected in the fall.  It determined the Gateway is not necessary for that specific goal.

Each of the companies has a different lander design.  They may be launched from Earth fully integrated or assembled in lunar orbit using their own rendezvous and docking systems.  In the Source Selection Statement, Jurczyk praised the companies for coming up with unique designs.

“In summary, all three offerors proposed audacious and innovative HLS designs and capabilities, each with unique technical merit.  Many of the technologies upon which these capabilities rely have yet to be developed, tested, or demonstrated; the challenge ahead is formidable. Yet while I acknowledge the risk that necessarily comes with such intrepidity, it is undeniable that these three proposals present tremendous value and potential for NASA and other public and private stakeholders…”  — Steve Jurczyk

Blue Origin, teamed with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper (the “Blue Origin National Team”) has a three-stage Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV). Blue Origin will build the descent/landing stage, while Lockheed Martin builds the ascent stage (derived from Orion) and Northrop Grumman provides a transfer stage.  In an emailed statement to, Blue Origin said the ILV can dock either with Orion or the Gateway if available, and the elements can be launched separately on Blue Origin’s New Glenn and the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Vulcan Centaur rocket and integrated in lunar orbit, or combined for launch on SLS.  An uncrewed demonstration test of the descent element would take place in 2023 prior to the 2024 landing.

Artist concept of the Blue Origin National Team crewed lander on the surface of the Moon. Credits Blue Origin

Dynetics (a Leidos company), teamed with Sierra Nevada and others, proposed the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS). A company spokesperson explained to that the system consists of a Descent/Ascent Element (DAE) and two Modular Propellant Vehicles (MPVs).  Since the MPVs are identical, it is considered a two-stage system.  DHLS can be launched fully integrated on an SLS Block IB, or on three ULA Vulcan Centaurs (one for the DAE and one each for the MPVs). It can dock either with Gateway (if available) or with Orion. The reusable DAE can accommodate 2-4 astronauts depending on how much their spacesuits and supplies weigh.  After returning to lunar orbit, the crew will transfer back into Orion (or Gateway) and return to Earth while the DAE remains in lunar orbit awaiting refueling with new MPVs. It then can ferry the next crew down to and back from the surface.

Artist concept of the Dynetics Human Landing System on the surface of the Moon. Credit: Dynetics

SpaceX offered its fully integrated lander, Starship, which will be launched by SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket.  SpaceX did not respond to a request for further information.  NASA’s press release states that several Starships will be used: one as a fuel depot in Earth orbit, another as a tanker to take fuel to the depot, and a crew Starship that will launch from Earth, refuel at the depot, and then go to the Moon. Via Twitter, SpaceX said the award is to build a “lunar optimized” Starship to transfer crews from lunar orbit to the surface, but provided no details about getting from Earth to lunar orbit.

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

During the 10-month base contract period, NASA will evaluate which of the companies will perform initial demonstration missions, after which NASA will select one or more to develop and mature “sustainable lander systems followed by sustainable demonstration missions.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine praised the companies today for not only offering innovative designs, but putting up their own resources.  “We’re further ahead than many believe,” he exclaimed.

The Artemis program will cost billions of dollars on top of NASA’s other programs over the next five years, but he is confident of bipartisan congressional support despite the trillions being spent on COVID-19 relief.  Bridenstine, a former Member of Congress himself, believes Congress will not be inclined to cut budgets because government spending is how the economy will get back on its feet.  In any case, NASA’s budget is so small it would not make much of a difference.

“We’re not going to be the solution to balancing the budget. … I don’t think we’re in any jeopardy.” — Jim Bridenstine

He also is optimistic that Congress will pass an infrastructure bill and wants NASA included in that as well.

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, issued a statement praising the use of commercial partnerships that lower costs and allow companies to innovate.  “These competitors’ designs will play a major role in producing a brand-new human lander that will enable our astronauts to access important areas of the Moon’s surface and sustain our nation’s deep space exploration efforts.”  His committee oversees NASA and Stennis Space Center is near Bay St. Louis, MS.

By contrast, the top Democrats on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee issued a statement expressing “disappointment” with the awards.

Note: This article has been updated several times.

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