NASA announced today that plans to develop a second human lunar lander for its Artemis program, the agency’s main spaceflight initiative to send humans back to the moon. To build the vehicle, the space agency is calling on commercial space companies to propose concepts for landers that can take humans to and from the orbit of the moon and the lunar surface, aiming to have them ready by 2026 or 2027 at the earliest.
NASA already has a contract with commercial partner SpaceX to develop a lunar lander for Artemis, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a single contract worth $2.9 billion to develop the company’s future Starship vehicle into a lander that can take people to and from the lunar surface. As of now, both NASA and SpaceX are working to perform the first Artemis moon landing as early as 2025, though that timeline is considered unlikely†
NASA had originally wanted to single out two companies to develop human lunar landers for Artemis to boost competition and keep costs down. The agency would choose the two winners from three finalists: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics. But the agency eventually chose it, mainly because of budget constraints. For 2021, NASA had requested $3.4 billion from Congress to fund the development of Artemis lunar landers, but received only $850 million, only 25 percent of what was asked. As a result, NASA went with SpaceX, in part because the company had made the most affordable offer.
However, the decision to choose just one company did not go down well with the losing finalists. Blue Origin sued NASA in federal court over the selection, though the company ultimately lost its case. Despite the lawsuit, NASA administrator Bill Nelson expressed his wish to eventually have two lunar landers, in the hope that Congress would fund the initiative. And at one point it looked like Congress would send NASA to make that happen. In October, the Senate Appropriation Committee introduced a bill that: would commission NASA to choose a second company to develop a lunar lander for Artemis† However, the most recent budget bill signed before 2022 did not force NASA to do so, but did give the space agency the full $1.195 billion it had requested to develop lunar landers.
Now, ahead of President Joe Biden’s budget request expected next week, NASA is announcing official plans to select another company’s lunar lander, as the agency had wanted to do all along. “Competition leads to better, more reliable results,” Nelson said at a news conference announcing the news. “It benefits everyone. It benefits NASA. It benefits the American people.” Nelson added: “I promised competition, so here it is.” NASA now plans to issue a draft call by the end of the month, with plans to issue a final call later this spring. Everyone except SpaceX will be able to compete for a contract in this new competition.
In light of this announcement, NASA says it will make some changes to SpaceX’s existing contract. NASA’s original contract with the company has SpaceX perform an unmanned landing on the moon as a demonstration test before the first manned landing is made in the mid-2020s. That first landing, which will mark NASA’s return to the moon with humans since the 1970s, will be called Artemis III and should get a lot of attention. After that, SpaceX would have moved on to a new operational contract with NASA, under which the space agency would purchase individual flights of the Starship lander to go back to the moon.
Now NASA plans to partner with SpaceX under the original contract to conduct a possible third manned landing after Artemis III. After that, SpaceX and the new company NASA chooses would presumably compete for upcoming Artemis missions — that is, if the providers are ready.
Much of this depends on Congressional support, which could happen as some lawmakers signaled NASA would elect a second lunar lander. NASA won’t say how much it plans to ask for development funding, but with President Biden’s budget request scheduled for release on March 28, the numbers should be available pretty soon. Nelson says he expects the funds to materialize. “We expect support from both Congress and the Biden administration, and we expect this competition in the fiscal year 2023 budget to kick off.”