Several members of Congress cried foul when NASA chose just SpaceX as its lone contractor for the lunar lander planned to be used on the Artemis III mission to return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
Ahead of that April 2021 decision, NASA had requested funds to support two but ended up going with just SpaceX based on what was in the available budget. When President Joe Biden puts out his fiscal year 2023 budget request next week, it will include funding requests to open up a new competition for a second U.S. company to build a lunar lander for missions beyond Artemis III, according to a NASA announcement Wednesday.
“Today’s announcement is what I said to Congress. I promised competition. So here it is,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
Nelson wouldn’t reveal what the requested budget will be, but SpaceX won the Artemis III fixed-price contract with a bid of $2.9 billion to use a version of its Starship spacecraft for an uncrewed test landing on the moon followed by the crewed landing that aims to send two astronauts including the first woman to the lunar surface.
The new contract won’t be open to SpaceX, and it’s not exactly the same parameters as the Artemis III mission contract, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk will be able to pursue more Starship landings in the Artemis program as an expansion of the existing contract. The undetermined second company will pursue building a lander under the new agreement.
Dubbed the Sustaining Lunar Development contract, it calls for a Human Landing System that can interact with both the Orion spacecraft and the planned Gateway lunar space station and also be able to transport more cargo and science experiments to the surface, Nelson said.
NASA will meet with interested companies in the coming weeks and will issue a final solicitation for proposals this summer.
In 2021, SpaceX had beat out two other companies, one dubbed the “National Team” from a group led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin that also included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The other lander that lost out on Artemis III was proposed by Dynetics, a subsidiary of aerospace and scientific research company Leidos.
All three teams had been given nearly $1 billion to prove out their lunar lander plans having beaten out other companies including Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp.
With the new contract, U.S. companies are back in the mix with NASA’s goal of having two capable lunar landers for missions starting in the 2026-2027 window, Nelson said, which would follow the goal of landing Artemis III no earlier than 2025.
“SpaceX and our teams are making good progress on the demonstration HLS award which will land the first Americans on the moon in over half a century,” Nelson said, saying everything with Starship remains on schedule. “That landing will be the first, and from there we expect approximately one human landing per year over a decade or so.”
Having two landers will allow the Artemis program to ensure keeping its long-term goal of sending human missions to Mars in the late 2030s or 2040, Nelson said.
“Now all of this boils down to that we think, and so does the Congress, that competition leads to better, more reliable outcomes,” Nelson said. “It benefits everybody. It benefits NASA. It benefits the American people. It is obvious the benefits of competition.”
The first Artemis mission is slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center later this year. The Space Launch System rocket with Orion capsule was rolled out to KSC’s Launch Pad 39-B for the first time last week for a planned wet dress rehearsal.
Nelson said the likely earliest launch window would be in June, although a May opportunity could still be possible depending on the results of the pad tests.
That flight will be an uncrewed mission to the moon while an Artemis II flight with crew would take astronauts in orbit around the moon without landing no earlier than May 2024.
“These are not isolated missions. Each is going to build on the past progress (allowing for) the discovery and the understanding that we are seeking and what it takes to live in deep space,” Nelson said. “All of that is of course in preparation for us then to have the first human mission to Mars.”
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