NASA hasn’t landed humans on the moon in decades, but the agency is pursuing an ambitious timeline for the Artemis program. Currently, NASA hopes to have crewed lunar missions ready to launch in 2024, and to further that goal, it has awarded contracts to three companies to develop lunar landers: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics.
The value of the new human landing systems (HLS) contracts is $967 million, but that’s just for these firms to get started. The exact nature of Artemis is still up in the air. Initially, NASA hoped to have the Lunar Gateway station available for the first landings in 2024, but it’s now planning to send an Orion capsule to lunar orbit where the crew can transfer to one of the proposed landing systems. The Gateway is still on the agenda for use in later missions.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully pitched its Starship vessel, which is already undergoing testing and finally managed not to explode during a recent pressurization test. The Starship will be a single-stage landing solution that will launch from Earth on the company’s Super Heavy platform. The Starship will descend to the lunar surface, remain there for the duration of the mission, and then return astronauts to orbit.
Blue Origin, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, will work with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to field the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV). This three-stage lander will have ascent, descent, and transfer elements. The ILV will be compatible with Blue Origin’s New Glenn Rocket, which is still in the early stages of development. Failing that, it will also work with the ULA Vulcan launch system.
Finally, there’s Dynetics, an Alabama-based firm that proposes the single-stage Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) with a unique “low-slung” crew module for easier access to the lunar surface. Dynetics isn’t attempting to make its own launch platform for the DHLS — it will use the ULA Vulcan launch system.
The current HLS contract runs through February 2021, at which time NASA will evaluate design and prototyping progress before selecting one or more companies to proceed with building landers for NASA. SpaceX does seem to have a leg up on the competition as it’s already building Starship prototypes, but this spacecraft is not intended specifically for lunar landings. SpaceX wants to use the Starship for deep space missions, Mars landings, and more. Blue Origin and Dynetics have the advantage of offering more specialized landers.
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