NASA has revealed a contract to develop a second human lunar module for its Artemis mission, which is the company’s biggest spaceflight project to reach people to the Moon. To create the spacecraft, NASA is asking commercial satellite companies to establish plans for missions to the moon that can transport people to and from the Moon’s orbit and surface, with the aim of having them operational by 2026 or 2027 at the latest.
“This plan advances development toward a long-term, supporting mission competence as early as 2026 or 2027,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, said during a release. NASA has so far signed a deal with private company SpaceX to create a lunar rover for Artemis, which hopes to be the first woman and the first black person to land on the Moon. The space agency gave SpaceX a $2.9 billion single contract in 2021 to convert the company’s future Starship vehicle into a lander capable of transporting humans to and from the lunar surface. Both NASA and SpaceX are now aiming at the first Artemis moon landing as early as 2025, while that schedule is deemed implausible.
This new strategy, though, is not entirely novel. NASA initially scheduled to choose three commercial manned landers for Artemis in order to have the flexibility and to motivate the companies constructing the vehicles via a contest. However, because Congress did not give enough funds to enable the construction of several vehicles, NASA decided to rely entirely on SpaceX in April 2021. Dynetics and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, the other two candidates for the prize, both protested the outcome. In addition to a public letter from Bezos to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson denouncing the selection, Blue Origin launched litigation, which eventually failed but slowed SpaceX’s lander development effort by nearly seven months.
With the exception of SpaceX, this recently launched challenge will be available to all American enterprises. However, Elon Musk’s business will be able to agree on the terms of its original deal to do extra lunar preliminary work, according to NASA officials at a press conference. “Within this new strategy,” NASA stated in a release, “NASA is inviting American businesses to offer rover designs effective of shuttling personnel between lunar orbit and the moon land for missions past Artemis III, which would deploy the very first humans on the Moon in more than 50 years.”