We’re still several weeks away from what could be the first launch of NASA’s Artemis program, but humans won’t return to the moon quite yet. First, NASA needs a way to get astronauts to and from the lunar surface, and it’ll have two different ways to do that. It’s already awarded SpaceX a contract to turn Starship into the Human Landing System (HLS) seen above. Now, NASA has the funding to pursue a second landing system, which is what it wanted to do in the first place. No doubt Jeff Bezos is clapping excitedly at the prospect of snagging the new contract.
The new contract is known as “Sustaining Lunar Development,” and NASA hopes that it will help to establish recurring lunar transport missions and lower costs in a way that a single landing system would not. This might be one of those rare instances where everyone involved gets what they wanted. NASA was initially hoping to fund two landing systems, but Congress only granted it a quarter of the $3.4 billion it wanted. That’s why SpaceX was the lone winner of the HLS contract, which upset Jeff Bezos so much he sued the government. He eventually lost, but now Blue Origin gets another shot, as does the third original bidder, Dynetics.
SpaceX is not allowed to bid on the Sustaining Lunar Development contract, which does make sense if the intention is to have two different companies making NASA’s landing systems. The two approved landing systems will compete for future service contracts for lunar landing, thus lowering costs for the government. However, this will only apply to the later Artemis missions, as well as any future moon missions. SpaceX is already on the books to provide surface transport for Artemis 3, which will be the first crewed landing. NASA has plans for two more confirmed landings after that, but there are proposals for up to 11 Artemis missions. However, with the Space Launch System clocking in at over $4 billion per launch, that number might be pared down.
NASA says it will have specific criteria for the Sustaining Lunar Development contract in the coming weeks, but Blue Origin and Dynetics will most likely base any proposals on the systems they already designed for NASA. The winner of the contract will be announced early next year. That winner won’t be SpaceX, but Elon Musk’s spaceflight firm can still get a bigger piece of the pie. SpaceX is free to exercise a provision in its contract known as “Option B.” This permits SpaceX to “transform” the HLS “into a spacecraft that meets the agency’s requirements for recurring services for a second demonstration mission.” You might wonder what that means, and you’re not alone. Analysts seem to believe Starship HLS already meets NASA’s requirements, and if exercised, SpaceX would be paid to conduct an additional crewed lunar mission.
We don’t know the value of the new lander contract — that will depend on the upcoming Federal budget. It will surely run into the billions of dollars, but having two certified lunar transport crafts could help reduce costs as the Artemis Program advances.