NASA awarded contracts worth a combined $967 million to three teams of companies on Thursday to begin work on lunar landers toward the agency's goal of putting astronauts on the Moon by 2024.
Teams led by Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics won awards under NASA's Human Landing Systems program. These awards are study contracts for the next 10 months, at the end of which NASA will pick one or more winners to begin building the spacecraft.
NASA awarded the Blue Origin team with $579 million, the Dynetics team with $253 million and SpaceX with $135 million. The wide range in award totals comes due to the differences in each team's bid and approach to achieving NASA's goal.
Boeing also bid on HLS but was not awarded with a study contract. The Boeing proposal included using an upgraded Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which Boeing is currently building for NASA.
The lunar landers built under HLS are a part of NASA's Artemis mission to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. That's a task President Donald Trump gave NASA in 2017, when he directed the agency to accelerate its efforts and land humans on the lunar surface. Trump was the third president in the last 30 years to announce a return to the Moon.
NASA requested $3.37 billion in its fiscal year 2021 to fund the HLS program. Congress last year approved $600 million for the agency to develop a crewed lunar lander, making NASA's latest request a five-fold increase.
Jeff Bezos' space company unveiled its plans to build a crewed lunar lander last year, announcing it would partner with industry giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper in the effort.
"We have put together a national team to go back to the moon," Bezos said in October.
Blue Origin had previously unveiled its lunar lander concept, called Blue Moon. Bezos said that, in Blue Origin's team, his company would build the lunar lander while Lockheed Martin will built the "ascent element" (which returns astronauts from the Moon's surface), Northrop Grumman would build the "transfer element" (which brings the lander into position in orbit around the Moon) and Draper would develop the systems' guidance and flight avionics.
The Blue Origin team's design would launch on multiple rockets, including the company's New Glenn or United Launch Alliance Vulcan. Both New Glenn and Vulcan are under development, with first launches scheduled next year.
Elon Musk's space company bid its immense Starship rocket for HLS, which the company has been developing and testing at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX said a "lunar optimized Starship" would bring crew from lunar orbit to the Moon's surface under NASA's Artemis program.
"A lunar optimized Starship can fly many times between the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit without flaps or heat shielding required for Earth return," the company said.
The rocket is designed to be reusable so SpaceX can launch and land it multiple times, like a commercial airplane. Starship's shiny external appearance is because of the type of stainless steel that SpaceX is using to build the rocket.
Starship recently passed a critical milestone in its development. The rocket prototype successfully performed a pressured, cryogenic test on Sunday.
Science and technology company Dynetics, a wholly-owned subsidiary of defense contractor Leidos, teamed up with Sierra Nevada Corporation to develop its lunar lander. The companies have been quiet about the proposal, only confirming in January that Dynetics was leading a bid for HLS.
NASA noted that Dynetics full lunar lander team includes more than 25 subcontractors. The company's two-stage lander would launch on a ULA Vulcan rocket.
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