NASA plans to give SpaceX some company on the Moon, giving Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin an opening

If NASA officials fulfill their wish, it won’t be just SpaceX that is going to the Moon. This could be a boon to Jeff Bezos’ space dreams.

As part of Artemis, NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the Moon, the agency hired two companies in 2019 to provide landers to take its astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface. appointed. But with insufficient funding from Congress, the agency decided in April of last year to award just one contract to SpaceX.

NASA officials said other companies would have the opportunity to compete for future missions.

On Wednesday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the space agency would soon announce a competition to develop a second lunar lander.

“I promised to compete,” said Nelson, “so here it is.”

The other company will share NASA’s Moon missions with SpaceX — about a year over the course of a decade or so. “These are not isolated missions,” Nelson said. “Each is going to build on the previous progress.”

Similar to SpaceX’s contract last year, the second company will receive financing for two landings — one to demonstrate the spacecraft’s capabilities without astronauts, then a second mission with astronauts.

Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said the aim would be for a crewed mission to take place in 2026 or 2027.

The lunar landers follow NASA’s recent approach, seeking a fixed-price contract, setting some requirements but allowing private companies to come up with their own designs to meet the agency’s needs and compete on price. Encourage innovation by allowing That approach led to SpaceX’s capsules that ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In the past, NASA generally led the development of rockets and spacecraft, and companies were paid to carry out plans, usually at very high costs.

Still, plans for a second lunar lander hinge on Congress providing the funds to pay for it. Nelson said he would not discuss how much the program could cost until the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 is released early next week.

After SpaceX was named the sole winner last year, the two companies that lost were Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Amazon founder Bezos; and Dianetics, a defense contractor — filed a protest with the federal government’s Accountability Office. Blue Origin’s offer was twice the price of SpaceX and Dianetics’ offer was even higher.

The GAO ruled against both companies.

Blue Origin sues NASA in federal court. It lost again.

Blue Origin and Dianetics now have a second chance, as do other companies that want to submit offers. Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of NASA’s Human Landing Systems program, said the agency plans to make a decision on a second lander early next year.

In a statement, Dianetics said the company was “delighted to learn of NASA’s plans,” and was looking forward to reviewing the upcoming call for proposals.

Blue Origin also praised the announcement. “Blue Origin is thrilled that NASA is creating competition by purchasing a second manned lunar landing system,” the company said in its statement. “Blue Origin is ready to compete and fully committed to the success of Artemis.”

Requirements for a second lander will be more ambitious – more cargo, longer surface stays – indicating a desire for more ambitious missions to the Moon.

In addition, NASA will be in talks with SpaceX under its current contract to build a lander that meets the new requirements, Watson-Morgan said.

NASA’s journey to send astronauts back to the Moon has been long and winding, and the current 2025 goal of adding new American footprints to the Moon seems unrealistically optimistic.

Still, NASA is making progress.

A giant rocket, the Space Launch System, is now finally at the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, though it will sit there for now. Next month, NASA will hold a countdown dress rehearsal — fueling the rocket but not igniting the engines. The rocket will then return to the Vehicle Assembly Building – essentially a giant tall garage for the rocket – in final preparations for a crewless test launch called Artemis 1 that could take place as early as this summer. It will send a capsule, Orion, around the Moon and back to Earth.

The second Artemis mission will be the first with astronauts aboard the Orion crew capsule on top of the SLS rocket. That flight, which is scheduled for May 2024, will enter orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth.

The first moon landing will take place during Artemis 3 no earlier than 2025. The four astronauts will then take an Orion capsule into lunar orbit where they will dock with the SpaceX Starship spacecraft, which will be waiting for them there. The two astronauts — the first woman and the first person of color, NASA says — will board the starship and then land near the Moon’s south pole and remain on the surface for about a week.

SpaceX has launched a series of Starship prototypes to an altitude of about 6 miles from its site in South Texas to show how it will belly-flop after slowing down to atmosphere and then descending vertically. In May, after four unsuccessful attempts, a prototype successfully landed. SpaceX is aiming to launch the first orbital flight of a starship in the coming months.

The goal of returning astronauts to the moon was revived during the Trump administration. NASA officials, and now under the Biden administration, have insisted that this time around is not intended to be the end itself but the beginning of larger human exploration of the Moon, and eventually advance into the Solar System.

With Wednesday’s announcement, NASA is trying to turn that hope into an ongoing program.

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