As NASA makes strides to return humans to the lunar surface under Artemis, the agency announced plans Wednesday to create additional opportunities for commercial companies to develop an astronaut Moon lander.
Under this new approach, NASA is asking American companies to propose lander concepts capable of ferrying astronauts between lunar orbit and the lunar surface for missions beyond Artemis III, which will land the first astronauts on the Moon in more than 50 years.
Built and operated according to NASA’s long-term requirements at the Moon, new landers will have the capability to dock to a lunar orbiting space station known as Gateway, increase crew capacity, and transport more science and technology to the surface.
“Under Artemis, NASA will carry out a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: a crewed mission to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond, ensuring we have the capability to carry out a cadence of missions over the next decade. Thank you to the Biden Administration and Congress for their support of this new astronaut lander opportunity, which will ultimately strengthen and increase flexibility for Artemis.”
NASA’s plans call for long-term lunar exploration and include landing the first woman and first person of color on the Moon as part of future Artemis missions. The agency is pursuing two parallel paths for continuing lunar lander development and demonstration, one that calls for additional work under an existing contract with SpaceX, and another open to all other U.S. companies to provide a new landing demonstration mission from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon.
In April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX as its partner to land the next American astronauts on the lunar surface. That demonstration mission is targeted for no earlier than April 2025. Exercising an option under the original award, NASA now is asking SpaceX to transform the company’s proposed human landing system into a spacecraft that meets the agency’s requirements for recurring services for a second demonstration mission. Pursuing more development work under the original contract maximizes NASA’s investment and partnership with SpaceX.
To bring a second entrant to market for the development of a lunar lander in parallel with SpaceX, NASA will issue a draft solicitation in the coming weeks. This upcoming activity will lay out requirements for a future development and demonstration lunar landing capability to take astronauts between orbit and the surface of the Moon. This effort is meant to maximize NASA’s support for competition and provides redundancy in services to help ensure NASA’s ability to transport astronauts to the lunar surface.
This upcoming second contract award, known as the Sustaining Lunar Development contract, combined with the second option under SpaceX’s original landing award, will pave the way to future recurring lunar transportation services for astronauts at the Moon.
“This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 timeframe,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the Human Landing System Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the Moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market.”
After the new draft solicitation is published, NASA will host a virtual industry day. Once comments and questions from the draft solicitation process have been reviewed, the agency plans to issue the formal request for proposals this summer.
Astronaut Moon landers are a vital part of NASA’s deep space exploration plans, along with the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, ground systems, and Gateway. NASA is committed to using a commercial astronaut lunar lander to carry the astronauts to the surface of the Moon, expanding exploration and preparing humanity for the next giant leap, human exploration of Mars.