NASA announces next high-stakes moon competition

Proposals to be sought shortly for a second multibillion-dollar lunar landing concept

This story has been updated

Competitors who lost out to SpaceX for a lucrative contract to develop a lander for NASA’s lunar exploration program are about to have a second chance.

The agency will seek proposals in the coming months from U.S. companies “to provide a new landing demonstration mission from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon,” NASA said today in a news release.

In the meantime, SpaceX is meeting all milestones under a $2.9 billion contract received from NASA a year ago to adapt its Starship spacecraft to return Americans to the moon in 2025 in the Artemis III mission, NASA officials said in a media teleconference today.

“We are scheduled for an uncrewed [SpaceX] lander on the moon in 2024, a crewed lander in 2025,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters.

Nelson and other NASA officials declined to discuss how a second lander design would be funded. Nelson said funding figures would be revealed in the Biden administration’s upcoming spending request for fiscal 2023. He said he’s confident members of Congress “are committed to ensuring that we have more than one lander to choose for future missions, and we’re expecting to have both Congress’ support and support from the Biden administration.”

Ultimately, NASA expects to have two companies — SpaceX and one other — carry out uncrewed and crewed demonstration missions, said Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the Human Landing System.

SpaceX also will have the ability to bid its forthcoming Starship missions after Artemis III, according to NASA.

“Our innovative astronaut moon landers will be a hallmark in space exploration history,” Watson-Morgan said during the teleconference. “We’re going to be forging the path.”

She declined to specify whether NASA would require the second lander to use different methods or technology than SpaceX’s Starship.

Former Vice President Mike Pence set a moon landing goal of 2024 in a 2019 speech, giving NASA just five years to accomplish the feat. But Nelson and other NASA officials have said a lack of congressional funding prevented NASA from meeting milestones to achieve a 2024 landing.

A 2021 audit from NASA’s Office of Inspector General said the agency would likely exceed the 2025 goal “by several years.” The audit said development of new spacesuits and the Human Landing System are both behind schedule.

The agency requested $3.4 billion for lunar lander development for fiscal 2021, but Congress appropriated $850 million.

Neither SpaceX’s Starship nor NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which will launch the Orion capsule, have flown in space yet. NASA has rolled the first SLS to its launch pad for testing ahead of the uncrewed Artemis I flight around the moon. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched Starship prototypes to heights of around 10 kilometers and plans an orbital test flight by the end of 2022.

Two SpaceX competitors, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Alabama-based Dynetics, lost bids to build human landing systems for NASA. Both companies failed to overturn SpaceX’s win during formal contract protests.

SpaceX says its Starship moon lander will have “a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks” that will someday offer a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the moon, Mars and other destinations.

NASA announces next high-stakes moon competition