"Between the three contractors I think NASA has everything it needs to be successful for the 2024 landing, and not just that, we have what is necessary for a sustainable lunar presence by 2028," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars. "We’re thrilled. Each one of these contractors brings not just unique designs, they’re bringing unique histories and unique philosophies toward development. All of that makes NASA better."Most notable to me is that two out of three of the prime contractors are the “next generation” space contractors. While several of the subcontractors are familiar names, it's interesting that they're in the sub-tier to these prime contractors. Boeing was a known bidder on the contract, and as NASA's Chief of Human Spaceflight Ken Bowersox said last month, was not awarded any contract.
The awards, which cover a period of 10 months, were given to the following teams:From this cheap seat, I see Blue Origin and SpaceX as kind of opposite companies in an important way. Blue Origin has yet to launch anything into orbit, instead working on developing engines, this moon lander, and plans for migrating people to colonies in Space. They've developed and tested the New Glenn booster but have only done suborbital hops. SpaceX, by contrast, planned to be in the launch business since the first days of the Falcon 1 just under 12 years ago. Today, the Falcon 9 is the most experienced booster in the US. Dynetics is a new one on me, and while they appear to be a Defense sector contractor, they have a Space Solutions webpage featuring several projects, not one of which has flown.
- $579 million to the Blue Origin-led "National Team." Blue Origin will serve as the prime contractor, building the Blue Moon lunar lander as the "descent element" of the system, along with program management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin will develop a reusable "ascent element" and lead crewed flight operations. Northrop Grumman will build the "transfer element," and Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics. It will launch on a New Glenn rocket.
- $253 million to a Dynetics-led team. The company's proposal for a lunar lander is non-traditional and includes Sierra Nevada Corporation as a major partner. The ALPACA lander has a pair of drop tanks that are launched separately, which allow the main lander to be reused. These tanks are depleted and then jettisoned during descent. ALPACA could be launched on United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket.
- $135 million to SpaceX. The company bid its Super Heavy rocket and Starship to carry humans to the Moon. The benefit of Starship is that if the vehicle is successful, it would offer NASA a low-cost, reusable solution for its needs.
Getting back to the main story, NASA hasn't selected a final architecture for the first human landing mission of the Artemis Program and won't choose one until this 10 month study contract period is over. For the rest of this year, NASA will assess the technical readiness of the various approaches to deliver both a lander to lunar orbit and the lander technology itself.
NASA is taking a two-pronged approach toward the Artemis program. The agency has a clear mandate from the White House to land humans on the Moon by 2024. This has been criticized by some as a "political" date, but supporters of the fast timeline say it has injected needed urgency into the program. At the same time, NASA also wants to avoid the pitfalls of the Apollo Program—which flew six missions to the Moon and then ended due to high costs—by designing Artemis to be sustainable for the long term.In this scenario, SpaceX appears to be the wildcard - note they were awarded the least of the three, by a huge margin. They didn't bid flights on the well-established Falcon Heavy, they bid Starship, which hasn't actually flown at all (nor has the New Glenn or ULA's Vulcan). Administrator Bridenstine said they couldn't afford to overlook the possibility that Starship will be ready in time.
"SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing," he said. "People are going to look at this and say, 'My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?' The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing. This is not new to them. They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational. It’s going to drive down costs and it’s going to increase access, and it’s going to enable commercial activities that historically we’ve only dreamed about. I fully believe that Elon Musk is going to be successful. He is focused like a laser on these activities."
All three lunar landers: from left to right, Blue Origin's Integrated Lander, Dynetics ALPACA Lunar Lander, SpaceX's Starship lander. All three listed as NASA images.