NASA’s next lunar lander will not be made by SpaceX

As NASA takes the first step towards launching Artemis I, the agency is already thinking ahead. NASA announced on Wednesday that it would start a proposal round for a new lunar lander — one for deployment after the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for 2025.

“Additional landers will help increase the cadence of missions where we help astronauts land on the moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news conference.

In the nomination round, various private companies will submit proposals for manned and unmanned landers, specifically for missions “beyond the third Artemis,” Nelson says. The agency expects to launch about one landing mission to the Moon each year, all with an eventual launch to Mars in “the late 2030s or 2040s.” Due to existing contracts with the Human Landing System, proposals from SpaceX will not be considered in this particular proposal.

That could open the doors for Blue Origin to compete again for a lunar contract after losing in the last round. The round of legal challenges with NASA delayed some of the agency’s ambitions to actually go to the Moon by a few months.

Full details have yet to be released, but the agency expects to gather input from industry partners in early April before sending out a final call for proposals “later in the spring,” according to Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System program manager at the NASA .

Artemis I has been rolled onto the pad, awaiting an upcoming “wet dress rehearsal”.NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

What is the Artemis program?

The Artemis program is NASA’s ambitious program that will eventually land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. Launched in 2017 under President Donald Trump, the program combines aspects of previous programs developed under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, including the Space Launch System and the human Orion capsule. Before Artemis, the Bush administration sought a human return to the moon as part of the Constellation program, while Obama focused on the asteroid diversion mission as the first step toward a trip to Mars.

The Biden administration has kept Artemis largely intact. The first mission fleet provides for the launch of three missions:

  • Artemis I, an unmanned mission to the moon as a test for the Orion spacecraft and space launch system, eliminating technological problems along the way. NASA expects to launch the mission later this year, in June at the earliest.
  • Artemis II, a crewed mission in which NASA astronauts return to the moon but stop short of landing. NASA intends to launch this mission no earlier than May 2024. It will not orbit the moon but will swing around its other side before returning to Earth.
  • Artemis III, the final planned mission, will see humans enter the moon’s shadowed south pole. NASA wants a woman and a person of color to be part of this mission, although astronaut selection has yet to be announced. The mission will rendezvous with a space station known as the Lunar Gateway (which has also yet to be launched) before sending a crew of two to the surface in the Starship HLS vehicle. This makes NASA’s existing partnership with SpaceX critical to the success of the mission.

In the new round of proposals, the agency looks beyond its initial three missions to an ongoing lineup of lunar missions — something necessary if the agency intends to go ahead with its plans for a lunar base.

What about Mars?

A photo of Mars taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover.NASA

Several times during the press conference, Nelson, Watson-Morgan and NASA staffer Jim Free, deputy administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to a Mars landing. Free says whatever the Agency does with Artemis also has Mars in mind, and Nelson says the lessons learned from Artemis will tell the Agency how humans will fare in space.

NASA aims to land humans on Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s, using largely the same architecture as the Artemis program. But instead of flying a few days, a mission to Mars will take six months, during which time astronauts will be exposed to the dangers of space radiation and the accelerated wear and tear of the human body in a microgravity environment. The Lunar Gateway even ties into that – while the International Space Station orbits a few hundred miles above Earth, the Gateway will be in space, away from the protective shield that Earth offers astronauts from the harsher space environment.

The SpaceX HLS will take NASA astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years.SpaceX

Is SpaceX still involved in Artemis?

During the call, the agency reiterated its support for the existing HLS contract and called for new developments in the existing contract, taking into account the expanded Artemis missions. The new RFPs will serve as slightly more missions, conducted alongside the HLS or as a backup.

“Competition leads to better and more reliable results,” said Nelson. “It benefits everyone, it benefits NASA, it benefits the American people. The benefits of competition are clear.” Existing plans for Artemis III remain in place, but in coordination with the RFPs, NASA will work with SpaceX to advance the sustainable development of the lunar outpost.

Funding for the program — both the new RFPs and NASA’s existing lunar partnership with SpaceX — is expected next week when President Joe Biden will release the fiscal 2023 budget.

“Artemis is a complex campaign with many exciting milestones ahead,” says Free.

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