Eric Berger

NASA announced Thursday that it has awarded three contracts to begin initial development of lunar landing systems that will take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon in less than five years.

With these Human Landing System awards, space agency officials reiterated in an interview that they remain committed to landing a pair of astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and building a sustainable presence by 2028. Asked if 2024 was still “on the table” despite the COVID-19 pandemic and myriad other challenges with such an aggressive timeline, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, replied, “It’s not only on the table, it is the table.”

The awards are notable both for their diversity and NASA’s apparent willingness to take a chance on SpaceX and its out-of-the-box concept with its ambitious Starship system.

“Between the three contractors I think NASA has everything it needs to be successful for the 2024 landing, and not just that, we have what is necessary for a sustainable lunar presence by 2028,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars. “We’re thrilled. Each one of these contractors brings not just unique designs, they’re bringing unique histories and unique philosophies toward development. All of that makes NASA better.”

Three contracts

The awards, which cover a period of 10 months, were given to the following teams:

  • $579 million to the Blue Origin-led “National Team.” Blue Origin will serve as the prime contractor, building the Blue Moon lunar lander as the “descent element” of the system, along with program management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin will develop a reusable “ascent element” and lead crewed flight operations. Northrop Grumman will build the “transfer element,” and Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics. It will launch on a New Glenn rocket.
  • $253 million to a Dynetics-led team. The company’s proposal for a lunar lander is non-traditional and includes Sierra Nevada Corporation as a major partner. The ALPACA lander has a pair of drop tanks that are launched separately, which allow the main lander to be reused. These tanks are depleted and then jettisoned during descent. ALPACA could be launched on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
  • $135 million to SpaceX. The company bid its Super Heavy rocket and Starship to carry humans to the Moon. The benefit of Starship is that if the vehicle is successful, it would offer NASA a low-cost, reusable solution for its needs.

The fourth known bidder for a Human Landing System contract was Boeing, which partnered with Houston-based Intuitive Machines. Boeing, which is already contracted with NASA to build the core stage of the Space Launch System rocket and the booster’s Exploration Upper Stage, did not receive an award.

Bridenstine said the individual award amounts do not reflect a ranking or preference on the space agency’s behalf. Rather, he said, the awards are based upon the amounts requested by each of the three teams and the scope of work they proposed to complete over the next 10 months. “Some people might look at the dollar amounts and think we’re playing favorites,” he said. “And we’re really, really not.”

Two-pronged approach

NASA has not actually selected a final architecture for its first human landing mission of the Artemis Program. Both Bridenstine and Loverro said a final decision for this Artemis III mission architecture, scheduled for 2024, will not be made until near or at the end of the initial 10-month lunar lander contract phase. “We’re keeping that part open right now as we see how these designs mature and evolve as we start to work with the contractors,” Loverro said.

Over the remainder of this year, NASA will assess the technical readiness of the various approaches to deliver both a lander to lunar orbit and the lander technology itself. Loverro reiterated his preference for building, or integrating, the lander on the ground and launching it in one combined system.

“Clearly, that is one of the trades that we will go through,” Loverro said. “I do view it as far less risky to go ahead and integrate things on the ground. It’s fewer launches. It’s fewer independent propulsion systems and power systems. So certainly there’s a huge advantage to doing that. But it comes with the limitations on how you could possibly launch it, and all of the other kind of things.”

NASA is taking a two-pronged approach toward the Artemis program. The agency has a clear mandate from the White House to land humans on the Moon by 2024. This has been criticized by some as a “political” date, but supporters of the fast timeline say it has injected needed urgency into the program. At the same time, NASA also wants to avoid the pitfalls of the Apollo Program—which flew six missions to the Moon and then ended due to high costs—by designing Artemis to be sustainable for the long term.

At the end of the initial 10-month contract, NASA may or may not down-select from three to two lander designs. Bridenstine said that calculation will be decided by funding and which designs allow NASA to go both “fast” and “sustainably.” He also has encouraged companies to work with engineers at NASA centers, including those without human spaceflight expertise such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to mature their designs this year.

What the agency is trying to do with these awards is unprecedented, both in terms of breaking the traditional aerospace mold and in going fast. By way of comparison, Grumman’s contract to build the Lunar Module for the Apollo Program was finalized in March 1963 at $387.9 million. The first crewed Lunar Module flew six years later in March 1969 on Apollo 9. The Apollo 11 landing took place in July 1969. The Grumman contract was worth $3.2 billion in present-day dollars.

About Starship

NASA’s award for Starship will likely surprise many in the aerospace community who have viewed the ambitious project with some skepticism (SpaceX’s founder eventually plans to build hundreds of Starships to settle Mars). But Bridenstine said NASA could not afford to ignore the potential of this system.

“SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing,” he said. “People are going to look at this and say, ‘My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?’ The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing. This is not new to them. They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational. It’s going to drive down costs and it’s going to increase access, and it’s going to enable commercial activities that historically we’ve only dreamed about. I fully believe that Elon Musk is going to be successful. He is focused like a laser on these activities.”

Bridenstine also praised Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos for investing billions of dollars into hardware development that has given the company a head start on its Blue Moon lander. And while Dynetics may not be a household name in aerospace, Bridenstine said the company has quietly worked with NASA for decades and brings “an immense amount of history and capability to the table.”

Listing image by NASA



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