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Nasa goes private for next-gen lunar landers

Image credit: Michael Rosenwirth | Dreamstime

Nasa has revealed it is turning to the private sector to develop the first human lunar landers in half a century.

Jim Bridenstine, Nasa's administrator, announced that three companies will develop, build and fly lunar landers, with the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024 and ultimately on to Mars.

The companies involved are SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, led by Elon Musk; Blue Origin in Kent, Washington, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Dynetics, a Huntsville, Alabama, subsidiary of Leidos. Altogether, the contracts for the initial 10-month period will total $967m (£770m).

“This is the last piece that we need in order to get to the Moon by 2024,” Bridenstine said, noting that the chosen vehicle will be the first lunar lander deployed since the Apollo 17 Moon mission in 1972.

Over the next 10 months, each company involved will refine its concept and the space agency will decide which lander to test first. Bridenstine said Nasa will go with the company that has the highest probability of success by 2024.

As part of its project, Nasa will rely on its own Orion capsules and Space Launch System (SLS) mega rockets – still under development – to launch astronauts to the Moon.

Boeing and Vivace also put in bids to be involved in the space programme but were eliminated early on, leaving the final three companies with awarded contracts. Blue Origin was awarded more than half the total amount - $579m (£460m), or more than four times the $135m (£107m) awarded to SpaceX. Dynetics' award was in the middle: $253m (£187m).

Artemis astronauts on the Moon

This illustration made available by Nasa in April 2020 depicts Artemis astronauts on the moon.

Image credit: NASA via AP

SpaceX has proposed a Starship lander, which is said to be so tall that astronauts will have to use an elevator to get to and from the lunar surface. Blue Origin’s version comes with a big ladder, according to artistic renderings, while the Dynetics lander is said to be so low to the ground that only a few steps are needed, like a front porch - a feature that Nasa rewarded with high marks for safety and efficiency.

Furthermore, SpaceX said it will be using its own Starship spacecraft - still under development in Texas - and its own rockets. Blue Origin and Dynetics are partnering with numerous subcontractors, including commercial launch companies.

According to Bridenstine, going commercial for the lander will drive down costs while increasing access and building on Nasa’s commercial cargo and crew programmes for the International Space Station (ISS). In November 2019, SpaceX and Blue Origin were among the companies that won contracts to make cargo deliveries to the Moon.

Nasa said that it aspires for the new Artemis Moon-landing programme to be sustainable - unlike the Apollo missions - with multiple missions and multiple locations on the lunar surface. Officials also noted that while only one company will carry the first woman and next man to the lunar surface, all three are expected to participate over the long haul.

“By learning how to live and work on another world – the Moon – Nasa will be better equipped to eventually send astronauts to Mars,” Bridenstine said.

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