SpaceX, Blue Origin, Dynetics selected to send astronauts back to moon for NASA

NASA selects contractors to develop, build human moon landers

Renderings of the three spacecraft selected by NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

SpaceX’s Starship, Blue Origin’s moon lander and Dynetics’ spacecraft will return Americans to the moon’s surface after all three companies were chosen by NASA to build human moon landers, the space agency revealed Thursday.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Thursday the agency had selected three companies to carry astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program.

In September, NASA sought proposals for human lunar landing systems from American companies and by the November deadline, all the big names in space had thrown their hard hats in the ring, including Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics but in the end, the space agency tapped all but Boeing.

Below are the companies to which NASA awarded a total combined $967 million:

  • Blue Origin’s national team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, is developing an Integrated Lander Vehicle, a three-stage lander to be launched on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
  • Dynetics, a Leidos company, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System, a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system or NASA’s SLS.
  • SpaceX’s Starship spaceship will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

The contracts are a very big deal for all three companies but also for their many partners including United Launch Alliance and the Space Coast, where these missions will inevitability launch from no earlier than 2024.

It’s also notable none of the plans officially include NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, slated to launch for the first time no earlier than late 2021. According to a news release, Dynetics’ system can launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket or SLS.

Previously, NASA said the Artemis program would require NASA’s SLS rocket, the Orion spacecraft and an orbiting Lunar Gateway. Under that plan, the astronauts would use landers to shuttle back and forth from the lunar surface to the Gateway, however, it doesn’t appear NASA will wait for the Gateway spacecraft to be orbiting the moon before their commercial partners begin sending astronauts to the lunar surface.

In a call with reporters, Bridenstine said it was important that the Artemis program moves forward and that landing humans on the moon doesn’t mean NASA’s lunar Gateway or SLS are required to make it happen.

All three private companies selected by NASA are already developing spacecraft they plan to use for these moon missions.

SpaceX’s Starship is undergoing development and testing in Boca Chica, Texas and will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

“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,” SpaceX said in a tweet, adding, “With large habitable and storage volume, Starship is capable of delivering significant amounts of cargo for research and to support robust operations on the lunar surface to enable a sustainable Moon base.”

Blue Origin partnered up with companies who played major roles the last time NASA sent humans to the moon under the Apollo program.

“Our National Team brings unparalleled heritage, passion and innovation that will enable Americans to return to the surface and inspire another generation," Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a statement.

While Blue Origin will lead the team, Lockheed Martin will develop the ascent element based on its Orion spacecraft, Northrop Grumman will provide the transfer element based on its Cygnus spacecraft and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander will touch down on the lunar surface.

The Dynetics astronaut module will hold two astronauts for missions to lunar orbit, to the surface and back, including about a week on the moon. It can also ferry four astronauts to or from the lunar surface from NASA’s Gateway, according to a news release.

“There’s really no more exciting mission than delivering humans to other planetary bodies,” Dynetics vice president of space systems Kim Doering said in a statement. “However, it’s also among the most challenging endeavors, particularly given the goal of landing on the moon in 2024. We believe Dynetics has the recipe for success.”

Dynetics will primarily build and develop its spacecraft in Huntsville, Alabama and has partnered with other leading commercial space companies including Sierra Nevada Space Corp, Draper and Craig Technologies among others.

Mission timeline

All three contractors will develop their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021, according to a news release. During that time, NASA will determine which contractors will perform demonstration missions.

NASA experts with the Human Landing System program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama will work closely with the commercial partners during development.

HLS program manager Lisa Watson-Morgan will assign NASA personnel to support the work of each contractor.

“I am confident in NASA’s partnership with these companies to help achieve the Artemis mission and develop the human landing system returning us to the Moon,” Watson-Morgan said. "We have a history of proven lunar technical expertise and capabilities at Marshall and across NASA that will pave the way for our efforts to quickly and safely land humans on the Moon in 2024.”

NASA will later select contractors to develop sustainable lander systems followed by sustainable demonstration missions, according to a news release.

The first company to complete its lander will carry astronauts to the surface in 2024, and the second company will land in 2025, according to the space agency.

Check back for updates on this developing story.