SpaceX will not have to go to the moon if NASA officials get their wish. That could be a boon for Jeff Bezos’ space dreams.
As part of Artemis’ program to send NASA astronauts back to the moon, the agency plans to hire two companies in 2019 to provide lenders to take its astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface. But with insufficient congressional funding, the agency decided to award SpaceX only one contract in April last year.
Other companies will 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. “He’s here,” Nelson said.
Another company will share NASA’s lunar mission with SpaceX – over a period of about a decade or more – in a year. “This is not a separate mission,” Mr. Said Nelson. “Everyone is going to build on past progress.”
Similar to last year’s SpaceX deal, another company will receive funding for two landings – one to demonstrate the capabilities of the spacecraft without astronauts, then another mission with astronauts.
Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said the crude mission would be aimed at 2026 or 2027.
Lunar Lenders follows NASA’s recent approach to obtaining fixed-price contracts, setting certain requirements but encouraging innovation by allowing private companies to come up with their own designs to meet the agency’s needs and compete on price. That approach led to the SpaceX capsule carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. In the past, NASA has generally led the development of rockets and spacecraft, and companies were paid to carry out projects, usually at a much higher cost.
Still, the second lunar lender’s plan is based on Congress providing money to pay for it. Mr. Nelson said he would not discuss how much the program could cost until the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 is released early next week.
After SpaceX was declared the sole winner last year, the two companies that lost – Blue Origin, the rocket company Mr. Bezos, founder of Amazon; And Dynetics, a defense contractor – protested in the Federal Government Accountability Office. The Blue Origin proposal was twice the price of SpaceX and the Dynamics proposal was even more so.
The GAO ruled against both companies.
Blue Origin then sued NASA in federal court. He lost again.
Blue Origin and Dynamics now have a second chance, as do other companies that want to submit proposals. Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of NASA’s Human Lending System program, said the agency plans to make a decision on a second lender early next year.
In a statement, Dynatics said the company was “delighted to learn of NASA’s plans,” and looked forward to reviewing the next call for proposals.
Blue Origin also encouraged the announcement. “Blue Origin is thrilled that NASA is competing with another human lunar landing system,” the company said in a statement. “Blue Origin is ready to compete and is very committed to the success of Artemis.”
The requirements for the second lender will be more ambitious – more cargo, longer stays on the surface – reflecting the desire for a more ambitious mission to the moon.
In addition, NASA will negotiate with SpaceX under its existing agreement to create a lender that meets the new requirements, Ms. Said Watson-Morgan.
NASA’s journey to send astronauts back to the moon has been long and arduous, and the current 2025 goal of adding new American footprints to the moon seems unrealistically optimistic.
Still, NASA is making progress.
A giant rocket, the space launch system, is now finally on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, although it will remain there for now. Next month, NASA will rehearse the countdown’s dress – refueling the rocket but not igniting the engine. The rocket will then return to the vehicle assembly building – a huge high-rise garage for the rocket – for final preparations for a cruise test launch called Artemis 1 that could take place earlier this summer. It will send a capsule, Orion, around the moon and back to Earth.
The second Artemis mission will be the first in which astronauts will ride inside the Orion Crew capsule on top of an SLS rocket. That flight, which is a pencil for May 2024, will enter orbit around the moon before returning to Earth.
The first lunar landing will occur during Artemis 3 before 2025. The four astronauts will again take the Orion capsule into lunar orbit where they will dock with the SpaceX Starship spacecraft, which will await them there. NASA says two astronauts – the first woman and the first person in color – will go to the starship and then land near the moon’s south pole and stay on the surface for about a week.
SpaceX has launched a series of starship prototypes about six miles from its site in South Texas to show how it slows down and then descends vertically once it re-enters the atmosphere. In May, after four failed attempts, one of the prototypes successfully landed. SpaceX aims to launch the starship’s first orbital flight in the coming months.
The goal of returning astronauts to the moon was revived during the Trump administration. NASA officials later, and now under the Biden administration, have insisted that the purpose of this time is not the end itself but the beginning of massive human exploration of the moon, and ultimately farther into the solar system.
With Wednesday’s announcement, NASA is constantly trying to turn that hope into a program.