NASA has announced three companies that will be helping bring humans to the moon as part of the Artemis programme. These three US firms – Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX – will receive a combined $967 million to develop and test lunar landers.
“The United States has not had a human landing system since 1972,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in a press conference on 30 April. “This is the last piece that we need in order to get to the moon.”
Each company will be developing its own lunar lander. Blue Origin’s is called the Integrated Lander Vehicle and will be designed to launch aboard either the company’s own New Glenn rocket or the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
Dynetics’ lander is called the Dynetics Human Landing System and is also designed to launch aboard the Vulcan rocket. Finally, SpaceX’s contract will go towards the Starship, designed to launch aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
“One thing that we were striving for… is to see what US industry could bring us with respect to innovation, and boy did they deliver,” said NASA’s Lisa Watson-Morgan.
The three landers are very different. Blue Origin’s lander, which is based on the earlier Blue Moon concept, has three sections – a transfer stage to move it into a lower orbit around the moon from where it is first dropped off, a descent stage to land, and an ascent stage to return into lunar orbit. The landers from Dianetics and SpaceX are planned to each be a single structure that can perform all three of those manoeuvres.
For the first mission of the Artemis programme, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024, the plan is to launch one of the landers on a separate rocket from NASA astronauts, who are planned to launch aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) that the space agency is developing. Then, the astronauts will rendezvous with their lander in orbit around the moon before lowering down to its surface. The other two landers may be used on subsequent missions.
While the specifics are yet undecided, these craft will be tested without crews before the first crewed launch to the moon. “We won’t just send them up there and let them enter the spacecraft for the first time without tests,” said Watson-Morgan.
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