NASA’s Artemis program aims to launch the first woman and next man to the moon’s surface by 2024. A space race begins as SpaceX competes to develop a Starship Lunar Lander for NASA. The agency awarded contracts to three aerospace companies this year to develop a Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts to the moon. Blue Origin received $567 million to develop the ‘Blue Moon’ lander, Dynetics earned $253 million to develop its vehicle, and SpaceX received $135 million to develop a lunar-optimized variant of its Starship spacecraft (pictured above).
On September 21, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Jordy Singer said at a Space Transportation Association event, that all three lander concepts passed initial reviews. NASA will evaluate how each lander concept evolves before choosing a specific vehicle to launch astronauts to the moon. “NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions,” the agency detailed in a press release.
Under NASA’s Artemis program, SpaceX is working to develop a lunar optimized Starship to transport crew between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon. The company is actively developing Starship in South Texas where multiple stainless-steel prototypes are under assembly. SpaceX will soon test a full-scale Starship prototype, referred to as SN8, it will conduct a high-altitude test flight of around 50,000 feet (15-kilometers) above Boca Chica beach, Texas. SpaceX already performed two low-altitude, 150-meter test flights this year. A higher altitude test flight is key towards showing NASA the vehicle’s development is on track to meet the agency’s ambitious Human Landing System development timeline. Company officials stated they aim to conduct the first orbital test flight of Starship next year.
“The SpaceX human lander design is a single-stage solution with Starship, their fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said earlier this year, “The proposal included an in-space propellant transfer demonstration and uncrewed test landing.”
Bridenstine said that the agency would like to select all three landers next year, but their final choice depends on which lunar lander concept performs better. – “We are hopeful that we can go forward with all three,” Bridenstine told reporters in April. “It doesn’t mean that we will, but I think that each one of them is so unique and different, that we want to see what are the best capabilities that each of these companies bring to the table that we can take advantage of. That’s what this base period is really all about.”
“If we did down-select, we would probably down-select to two,” Bridenstine said. “We wouldn’t probably go below two. That’s because there’s a difference between going fast and going sustainably, and a lot of these different companies have different solution sets for achieving each of those requirements.” The agency’s next Human Landing System ‘continuation review’ will take place in December.