An illustration of a fit Artemis astronaut looking over the lunar surface from a lunar lander hatch.
Elon Musk’s spaceship won’t be astronauts’ only ticket to the moon for long.
A year after the space agencyto develop a human landing system for the program, it is now asking companies for new lander concepts.
“Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on Wednesday.
That competition will only really kick in after Starship brings the first crew of Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis III mission in 2025. SpaceX is still the sole contractor for that mission and also needs an unmanned spaceship on the moon before NASA astronauts on the same journey.
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The extra lander concepts are for missions after Artemis III. Like Starship, they will need to dock at NASA’s yet-to-be-launched lunar Gateway, a sort of way station for experiments, crews and supplies in orbit around the moon. From there, the vehicle must be able to bring its load to the surface and back.
“Under Artemis, NASA will conduct a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the moon to prepare for the next great leap for humanity: a manned mission to Mars,” Nelson added.
Last April, NASA only selected SpaceX to develop its new lunar lander, prompting calls from Blue Origin and Dynetics, both of which submitted concepts that were not selected. NASA had originally hoped to select two lander designs, but Congress allocated enough funds for just one.
In the end, theand SpaceX and NASA are currently collaborating on the first human lander to return to the moon in more than 50 years.
“Blue Origin is pleased that NASA is creating competition by purchasing a second human lunar landing system,” a company spokesperson said via email on Wednesday. “Blue Origin is poised to compete and remains deeply committed to the success of Artemis. We will continue to work with NASA to achieve the United States’ goal of returning to the moon as soon as possible.”
Dynetics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a news conference Wednesday, Nelson said he expects the Biden administration to include funding for the additional design of the lander in its upcoming 2023 budget proposal to Congress.
NASA also made it official that it would partner with SpaceX to use Starship for missions after Artemis III as well, meaning it would be in direct competition with whatever new company is chosen to provide a lander.
“We expect two companies to safely transport astronauts to the surface of the moon in their landers under the direction of NASA,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for NASA’s Human Landing System Program.
NASA says it will issue a draft request for proposals in the coming weeks.