WASHINGTON — NASA announced on March 23 that it will support the development of a second lander to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface to compete with SpaceX for the later “sustainable” phase of the Artemis program.
The agency said it will soon start a competition for what it is calling Sustaining Lunar Development, which will support work on a second lander separate from the existing Human Landing System (HLS) award, which SpaceX awarded in April 2021 unmanned demonstration landing and one manned landing, similar to SpaceX’s HLS Option A contract.
The Sustaining Lunar Development Award is designed to ensure that there are two companies that can compete for eventual service contracts for Artemis landing missions, providing the competition that many in Congress lobbied at NASA after giving SpaceX a single option- A prize awarded.
“Today’s announcement is what I said to Congress. I promised competition, so here it is,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said while speaking to reporters about the new program.
One difference from the Sustaining Lunar Development effort is that the landers must be designed for higher performance than the HLS competition, including the ability to carry more astronauts and cargo to the lunar surface and support longer stays. However, agency officials made no specific changes to the requirements.
SpaceX is not eligible to bid for the lunar advancement contract. However, NASA said it plans to exercise a provision in its HLS award called Option B to fund development of changes to SpaceX’s spacecraft lander to support the new requirements and a second manned demonstration mission.
NASA officials said the decision to hold a second competition did not reflect a lack of confidence in SpaceX in its HLS development. “We still have our sights set on 2025 for this landing. SpaceX continues to make good progress toward this mission,” said Jim Free, Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development. “But beyond Artemis 3, we want to increase healthy competition and enhance our lunar capabilities to support more science, more exploration, and an emerging lunar market.”
Sustaining lunar development is being conducted as part of the overall HLS program, said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s HLS program manager. She said there will be “multiple swim lanes” within HLS for SpaceX’s current Option A work, new Option B work, and the Sustaining Lunar Development project. The new award, like the original HLS award, will be a milestone-based fixed-price award and will have very similar requirements to Option B.
Watson-Morgan said NASA will issue a draft request for proposal (RFP) for the new project by the end of March, with an industry day in early April. A final call for entries will come out later in the spring, with the aim of awarding an award early next year.
Nelson declined to go into detail about the Sustaining Lunar Development budget. The White House is expected to release its fiscal 2023 budget proposal as early as March 28, which will include financial details for the effort.
However, NASA has struggled to secure funding for HLS, receiving only about a quarter of the $3.4 billion it requested in fiscal 2021. It received full funding for fiscal 2022, albeit at the much lower level of $1.195 billion. Efforts to secure billions of dollars in additional funding for a second country through infrastructure and stimulus packages last year have also failed.
A second lander could be significantly more expensive than the $2.9 billion cost of awarding HLS Option A to SpaceX. In the original competition, a team led by Blue Origin offered $6 billion, while a third entry from Dynetics offered even more. These were intended for the Option A landers, which would be less powerful and presumably cheaper than those that would meet the requirements of sustainable lunar development.
Free said he hopes some technology development contracts awarded in September for risk mitigation work will reduce the cost of the Sustaining Lunar Development Lander. “A lot of people have said to us, ‘We’ve learned a lot and we think our bids can be better this time,'” he said.