NASA plans to give SpaceX a company on the Moon

It won’t just be SpaceX going to the moon if NASA officials get their wish. It could be a boon for Jeff Bezos’ space dreams.

As part of Artemis, NASA’s program to return astronauts to the Moon, the agency in 2019 sought to hire two companies to provide the landers to take its astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface. from the moon. But with insufficient funding from Congress, the agency decided last April to award just one contract, to SpaceX.

Other companies would have the opportunity to compete for future missions, NASA officials said.

On Wednesday, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the space agency would soon announce a competition to develop a second lunar lander.

“I promised competition,” Mr. Nelson said, “so here it is.”

The second company would share NASA’s moon missions — roughly one a year for about a decade — with SpaceX. “These are not isolated missions,” Nelson said. “Each will build on past progress.”

Similar to SpaceX’s contract last year, the second company would receive funding for two landings – one without astronauts to demonstrate the spacecraft’s capabilities, then a second mission with astronauts.

Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said the goal would be for a crewed mission to occur in 2026 or 2027.

Lunar landers follow NASA’s recent approach of seeking fixed-price contracts, setting some requirements but encouraging innovation by allowing private companies to come up with their own designs to meet the agency’s needs and compete on prices. This approach led to SpaceX’s capsule that transports astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In the past, NASA generally led the development of rockets and spacecraft, and companies were paid to carry out the plans, usually at much higher costs.

Still, the plan for a second lunar lander hinges on Congress providing the money to pay for it. Nelson said he would not discuss the cost of the program until the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 is released early next week.

After SpaceX was named the sole winner last year, the two companies that lost – Blue Origin, the rocket company launched by Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon; and Dynetics, a defense contractor, filed protests with the federal Office of Government Accountability. Blue Origin’s proposal was twice as expensive as SpaceX’s, and Dynetics’ was even higher.

The GAO ruled against both companies.

Blue Origin then sued NASA in federal court. He lost again.

Blue Origin and Dynetics now have a second chance, as do other companies who would like to submit proposals. Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s human landing system program manager, said the agency plans to decide on a second lander early next year.

In a statement, Dynetics said the company was “pleased to learn of NASA’s plans” and looked forward to reviewing the next call for proposals.

Blue Origin also applauded the announcement. “Blue Origin is thrilled that NASA is creating competition by procuring a second human lunar landing system,” the company said in its statement. “Blue Origin is ready to compete and remains deeply committed to the success of Artemis.”

Requirements for the second lander will be more ambitious – more cargo, longer stays on the surface – reflecting the desire for more ambitious missions to the moon.

Additionally, NASA would negotiate with SpaceX under its existing contract to build a lander that meets the new requirements, Ms Watson-Morgan said.

NASA’s journey to return astronauts to the moon has been long and winding, and the current 2025 goal for adding new US footprints to the moon seems unrealistic and optimistic.

Still, NASA has made progress.

A giant rocket, the Space Launch System, is now finally on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, although it will remain there for the time being. Next month, NASA will hold a dress rehearsal for a countdown – powering the rocket but not firing the engines. The rocket will then return to the Vehicle Assembly Building — essentially a huge, tall rocket garage — for final preparations for an uncrewed test launch called Artemis 1 that could take place as early as this summer. It would send a capsule, Orion, around the moon and back to Earth.

The second Artemis mission will be the first with astronauts aboard the Orion crew capsule atop the SLS rocket. This flight, scheduled for May 2024, would orbit the moon before returning to Earth.

The first moon landing would take place no earlier than 2025, during Artemis 3. Four astronauts would once again take an Orion capsule into lunar orbit where they would dock with the SpaceX Starship spacecraft, which would wait for them there. Two of the astronauts — the first woman and the first person of color, according to NASA — would fly to Starship, then land near the moon’s south pole and stay on the surface for about a week.

SpaceX launched a series of Starship prototypes from its South Texas site to an altitude of around six miles to show how it would flop after re-entering the atmosphere to slow down and then land vertically. In May, after four unsuccessful attempts, one of the prototypes landed successfully. SpaceX aims to launch the first orbital flight of a Starship in the coming months.

The goal of returning astronauts to the moon has been revived under the Trump administration. NASA officials then, and now under the Biden administration, have insisted that the goal this time is not the end per se but the start of larger human explorations of the moon, and possibly further into the solar system.

With Wednesday’s announcement, NASA is trying to turn that hope into an ongoing program.