NASA puts out call for competitors to SpaceX's Moon lander
NASA is turning to the spirit of healthy competition to boost its chances of success in establishing a presence on the Moon, today outlining plans for a commercially-developed sidekick to SpaceX's lander. The announcement calls for private space companies to develop a second lander to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface, forming a key pillar in what the agency hopes will become a recurring transportation service for both crew and cargo.
The landers along with the Space Launch System will be a key part of NASA's Artemis program, which is aimed at creating a permanent US crewed presence on the Moon. Before selecting SpaceX to develop a lunar lander for the missions, NASA initially entertained concepts from a range of firms before whittling the possibilities down to three in 2020, with the others coming from Blue Origin and Dynetics.
NASA settled on SpaceX in April last year, awarding the company a US$2.9-billion contract to develop and demonstrate a lunar lander with capacity for two astronauts, and the ability to carry them from orbit down to the surface. Blue Origin actually brought a lawsuit over the decision, one of a number of factors contributing to delays in the program with the first crewed mission now slated for April 2025.
That is the timeline SpaceX is working to for a demonstration mission featuring its lunar lander, and today's announcement opens the door to other commercial US companies to develop one in parallel. NASA is working out the requirements for a second lander in an effort to not just generate competition, but offer redundancy and ensure it can take astronauts and equipment for scientific research down to the lunar surface.
“Under Artemis, NASA will carry out a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: a crewed mission to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond, ensuring we have the capability to carry out a cadence of missions over the next decade."
While crewed missions won't begin until 2025 at the earliest, NASA is preparing for uncrewed missions demonstrating the capabilities of its Space Launch System and Orion capsule. Last week, these were rolled out of the assembly building and onto the launchpad for the first time, where engineers will carry out a wet dress rehearsal with full tanks ahead of the Artemis 1 mission launch scheduled for May this year.
“This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 timeframe,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the Human Landing System Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “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.”