On Thursday, April 24th, NASA announced it awarded contracts to three companies that will design and build a human landing system for the Artemis program, which aims to land two astronauts on the Moon's surface, near the South Pole region by 2024. This puts NASA on the right path for human exploration on the Moon for the first time in history.
"With these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, including the incredible moment when we will see the first woman set foot on the lunar surface," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
SpaceX, Dynetics, and Blue Origin will be sharing the $967 million grant, which will fund ten months of lander system development. NASA will then select one or more of these teams to develop and mature the lander systems followed by demonstration missions. Once everything is complete, NASA will procure transportation services to the Moon's surface.
There are a number of options available, as each team takes a different approach for their landers. For instance, SpaceX will further develop the Starship deep-space transportation system, which could one day make space exploration and Mars colonization economically practical.
This artist's concept shows Starship on the Moon's surface as a lander. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
Starship, which will be able to carry up to 100 people at once, will liftoff from Earth atop of a Super Heavy rocket. Both of these will be reusable, as Super Heavy will descend to Earth, landing vertically shortly after launching, and Starship will be used in more missions once it's aloft. Since the spacecraft will have enough power to launch itself off the Moon or Mars, it will only need the Super Heavy rocket to liftoff from the Earth.
Starship will also be able to carry up to 100 tons of payload to the Moon's surface, and since SpaceX is eligible to transport robotic NASA payloads to the Moon, it will help pave the way for future Artemis missions. SpaceX was also granted a contract to supply Gateway, a small space station that NASA will construct in the Moon's orbit as a jump-off point for surface missions. Gateway is imperative to NASA's long-term lunar plans, but it will most likely not be used in the 2024 moon landing.
A concept by Dynetics shows the Human Landing System, which will carry astronauts to the lunar orbit. (Image Credit: Dynetics)
Dynetics will build a Human Landing System with a single element that provides ascent and descent capabilities. It will also contain several modular propellant vehicles that will fuel the engines throughout the mission. The spacecraft is designed to carry two astronauts to the lunar orbit and back, along with one-week stays on the Moon's surface. It could accommodate four astronauts on short trips to or from the Moon's surface if it's needed.
Blue Origin's lander has three stages, which are capable of ascent, descent and transfer. (Image Credit: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin will develop a three-stage structure that will be capable of ascent, descent and transfer. The descent will be based on the Blue Moon lander and BE-7 engine, which has been under development by Blue Origin for the past few years now. The ascent stage will be using Lockheed's experience when it developed the Orion crew capsule. (Lockheed is a contractor for Orion, NASA's crew-vehicle of the future, which will transport astronauts to the Moon and other destinations). Northrop Grumman will build the transfer element based on the Cygnus cargo module, which hauls robot cargo missions to the International Space Station. Finally, Draper will be leading the descent guidance while providing flight avionics.
NASA sought proposals for these human landing systems back in September 2019 and set the deadline for early November. During that time, NASA hoped it would receive innovative concepts from various companies.
Ever since privatized space travel was legalized in 2004, more companies have been more involved in the space race. Recently, companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been participating in space travel more often. Companies have been sending cargoes to the International Space Station via private space shuttles, while others mine metals from asteroids.
One of the main advantages of space privatization is its cost-effectiveness. For instance, the old Space Shuttle program cost $4 billion per year, but the resupply services contract only cost $50 million per launch. This allows NASA to spend money in other areas that may also need it, including research and investing in the development of newer space travel technologies. However, competition for innovation has also increased, which could also lead to rapid developments in space technology.
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