NASA is returning astronauts to the Moon in this decade for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. The Artemis program will see the first woman and next man walk on the Moon by 2024. The program will rely on NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, and Orion capsule for transporting astronauts from Earth to the Moon.

Artemis will also require a modern human landing system, or HLS, and today NASA announced which companies will be tasked with developing the new hardware.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Leidos subsidiary Dynetics have been selected as commercial partners to design and develop NASA’s modern human landing system.

NASA outlines how each company’s proposal for new human landing systems:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system. 
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system. 
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket. 

Here’s how each Human Landing System proposal will work:

Blue Origin

Blue Origin is the prime contractor for The National Team that will receive $579 million out of the $967 million awarded. The National Team includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. The Blue Origin National Team crewed lander is a three-stage Integrated Lander Vehicle:

  • Blue Origin is responsible for the descent element
  • Lockheed Martin is responsible for the ascent element and crew cabin
  • Northrop Grumman is responsible for the transfer element and is developing a future refueling element
  • Draper is responsible for guidance, navigation and control, avionics, and software systems

Dynetics

Alabama-based Dynetics, which will receive $253 million, has proposed a Human Landing System with a single element for ascent and descent with a crew cabin positioned low to the lunar surface. Dynetics Human Landing System relies on modular propellent vehicles on either side of the crew cabin.

United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno says ULA partnered with both Blue Origin and Dynetics on their proposals.

SpaceX

SpaceX, which will receive $135 million, has proposed a version of its Starship system to serve as NASA’s Human Landing System. Starship is currently in development in South Texas, and a fleet of Starships based on a common design can be used by NASA.

NASA says each Starship would have a distinct purpose from propellant storage in low Earth orbit to tanker Starships and human-rated Starships in lunar orbit.

SpaceX will launch Starship from its Super Heavy rocket booster from Earth. SpaceX has also been selected by NASA for missions to send cargo to Gateway, a lunar orbiting docking station that will be deployed in the future.

Space Launch System

During a media briefing with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on April 30, the agency recommitted to relying on Space Launch System to send astronauts from Earth to the Moon. This commitment is based on SLS and Orion beisng the only human-rated system developed in time to send astronauts from Earth to the Moon by 2024.

NASA also acknowledged the global coronavirus health pandemic and how COVID-19 could affect the Artemis program. In short, NASA believes its budget is small enough that it shouldn’t be affected by efforts to cut national spending. Administrator Bridenstine added that he will lobby Congress to include NASA in any infrastructure bill that seeks to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Absent from the list of commercial partners awarded contracts to develop modern Human Landing Systems is Boeing, which previously stated that it submitted its own HLS proposal to NASA.

Boeing is one of two commercial partners for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, although the company has not progressed as quickly as SpaceX for proving its spacecraft is safe for sending astronauts to space yet. Boeing will attempt its second spaceflight demonstration later this year after a failed demonstration in 2019; SpaceX is moving forward with sending NASA astronauts to space with its Demo-2 mission on May 27.

Boeing is also responsible for part of Space Launch System’s development.

What happens next?

NASA has awarded contracts to three commercial teams for developing a modern Human Landing System for its next lunar landing mission. Each team will compete over the next three years to develop the first modern, human-rated HLS in time for the Artemis III mission. All three proposals will likely be used for future missions, however, if proven safe and reliable to meet NASA’s goal of sustainability.

Learn more about each proposal from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics:

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