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On April 30, NASA announced three U.S. companies to design and develop human landing systems for the agency’s Artemis program.

Blue Origin of Kent, Washington; Dynetics, a Leidos company of Huntsville; and SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, each proposed unique lander designs – one of which will deliver the first woman and next man to the lunar surface by 2024. With this development, NASA is on track – for the first time in history – for sustainable human exploration of the Moon.

Charged with returning to the Moon in the next four years, NASA’s Artemis program will reveal new knowledge about the Moon, Earth and our origins in the solar system. The Human Landing System is a vital part of NASA’s deep space exploration plans, along with the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft and Gateway. 

“When I say this is historic,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “I mean that in the year 2020, Congress gave us a bipartisan budget that included funding for a human landing system – something we as an agency and as a country have not had since 1972. Today we’re going under contract with three companies that are going to take us all the way to the Moon.”

The human landing system awards under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships  Appendix H Broad Agency Announcement are firm-fixed price, milestone-based contracts. The total combined value for all awarded contracts is $967 million for the 10-month base period.

Blue Origin is the prime contractor for the National Team – which includes Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Maryland; Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia; and Draper of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The team is developing an Integrated Lander Vehicle – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket.

Dynetics proposed a team with more than 25 subcontractors specializing in both larger elements and the smaller system-level components of the Dynetics Human Landing System – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the Vulcan.

SpaceX is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

“One thing we were striving for with the solicitations and announcements was to see what U.S. industry could bring us in respect to innovation,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System program manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, “and boy did they deliver. We have three notably different architectures – from a one-stage, a two-stage and a three-stage architecture. That achieves the innovation that we wanted.”

NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in early 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions.

NASA will later select firms for development and maturation of sustainable lander systems followed by sustainable demonstration missions. NASA intends to procure transportation to the lunar surface as commercial space transportation services after these demonstrations are complete. During each phase of development, NASA and its partners will use critical lessons from earlier phases to hone the final concepts that will be used for future lunar commercial services.

NASA experts will work closely with the commercial partners building the next human landing systems, leveraging decades of human spaceflight experience and the speed of the commercial sector to achieve a Moon landing in 2024.

Watson-Morgan will assign NASA personnel to support the work of each contractor – providing direct, in-line expertise to the companies as requested in their proposals.

The Human Landing System Program will also perform advanced development and risk reduction activities, working in parallel to better inform the approach for the 2024 mission and the necessary maturation of systems for the future sustaining architecture. 

“It’s important that our agency do this now,” Bridenstine said. “The whole world has been shaken by this coronavirus pandemic. Yet, we need to give people hope. We need to give them something they can look up to, to dream about. I think that’s what NASA does.”

Editor’s note: Taylor Goodwin, an ASRC Federal/Analytical Services employee, supports the Office of Strategic Analysis and Communications.

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