NASA is still on a big Moon 2024 push and they want to get astronauts on the surface of the Moon. They’ve awarded some new contracts so let’s talk about what that means!

On April 30, 2020 NASA announced three big contracts for their upcoming Moon 2024 lunar missions. It should be no secret that NASA has a target date of 2024 for when they want to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon again and not only is 2024 still on the table for NASA but it is the only option that they’re pushing for… for now. The intent is to land astronauts again on the surface of the Moon in 2024 and set up sustainable habitats there by 2028.

The three most recent contracts are pretty noteworthy, because this is the lunar lander portion for the vehicle that will take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon. These contracts provide initial development funding. They haven’t actually selected a vehicle that will take astronauts to the surface yet but this is still pretty good news for these three award winners. This set of contracts will provide development work over the next 10 months and awards just under $1 billion dollars worth of funding for that development. Those three contracts are going to go to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX.

All three of these companies will be launching their lunar lander separately from crew and the crew will meet up with the lunar lander in lunar orbit. Blue Origin is going to get the lion’s share of the contracts with 579 million dollars going to them alongside their partner companies as part of the National Team. The National Team is a partnership of companies set up by Blue Origin which also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. As part of that contract, Blue Origin will be the prime contractor. They’ll be responsible for program management, safety, engineering, etc. and the other companies will follow their lead. Blue Origin will also be developing the descent element for the lunar lander.

Lockheed Martin will develop a reusable ascent element and lead crewed flight operations.

Northrop Grumman will develop the transfer element and Draper will lead descent guidance and provide flight avionics.

Dynetics is the second company to be awarded a contract and they are getting $253 million dollars. They’re developing their lunar lander alongside a partnership with the Sierra Nevada Corporation. They also have a bit of a unique approach to this because they’re ALPACA lander has a pair of drop tanks that are launched separately which allows the main Lander to be reused. These tanks are depleted and then jettisoned during descent. That ALPACA Lander is expected to launch on the United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket which is their up and coming new rocket that they’re developing.

Lastly, what came as a surprise to many people in the aerospace industry is SpaceX. SpaceX was awarded 135 million dollars to further develop their Starship platform.

This is specifically intended to be a lunar optimized Starship which means that it won’t have any flaps on board and it’s not going to have any heat shielding for Earth reentry, but it will be reusable from lunar orbit to the moon surface and back again.

There are many people that are skeptical about the Starship.  This is just because of the sheer scale of it and the fact that everything is public where we can see things like the prototypes explode in a very public fashion.

However, even NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has given kudos to SpaceX for their ability to fail and fix.

“SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing,” he said. “People are going to look at this and say, ‘My goodness, we just saw Starship blow up again. Why are you giving them a contract?’ The answer is because SpaceX is really good at iteratively testing and fixing. This is not new to them. They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational. It’s going to drive down costs and it’s going to increase access, and it’s going to enable commercial activities that historically we’ve only dreamed about. I fully believe that Elon Musk is going to be successful. He is focused like a laser on these activities.”

-Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator

It’s also just impossible to ignore the fact that if Starship is successful it will provide a very low-cost option to NASA. That low-cost would be huge for NASA because that would help avoid the problems of the Apollo program which was cancelled because of the high cost.

There is a big difference in the dollar amounts that have been awarded to each company but NASA is cautioning people not to read too far into that. It’s not showing preferences or favorites in any way. Rather, those dollar amounts actually are reflective of what the company both requested and the scope of work that they’re intending to complete over the next ten months. Just like with the Commercial Crew Program, NASA is intending to try to keep multiple contractors onboard for developing these lunar landers. Ultimately, though, three contractors might be a little bit too much for their budget so they may have to pare down that list. Over the course of the next 10 months, NASA will be watching and participating in the development of these vehicles, but as this contract winds up they may be forced to eliminate one of these providers.

One thing that’s still a little bit up in the air is NASA’s Lunar Gateway. Originally NASA had intended for the Lunar Gateway to be ready by the time Artemis 3 took astronauts to lunar orbit, but NASA has decided that they will not go through the Gateway for Artemis 3 and instead they will meet up with one of these landers in lunar orbit without the Gateway. At this point though NASA is still pushing hard for that Lunar Gateway. They do still feel that the Lunar Gateway is a key for a sustainable presence at the moon. The Lunar Gateway enables NASA to reach a whole host of orbits around the moon. Unfortunately, with NASA’s big push for landing astronauts by 2024, some things just have to get deferred to farther down the road.

One notable absence in all these contract announcements was that Boeing was left out of the mix. Boeing did submit a proposal for a lunar lander but NASA ultimately decided not to provide them funding for development and it makes you wonder if this has anything to do with the recent failures from the Boeing Starliner. So which design do you like better and which do you think will be ready by 2024? Any of them? All of them? Let me know!