NASA’s latest lunar lander competition round saw a huge shake-up of the team.
In the second Human Landing Systems (HLS) bidding process, former collaborators Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin are now part of different teams vying for the lunar transport of future astronauts under the Artemis program. And this time, SpaceX is not among the bidders.
The $10 billion HLS contract that closed on Tuesday (December 6) (opens in a new tab) aims to provide astronauts with a means of landing on the surface of the moon. NASA has already secured SpaceX transport for Artemis 3 and Artemis 4, but is asking other companies to participate in future landings following instructions from the US Senate.
Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission explained in photos
This time, Blue Origin is leading the bid for their “National Team (opens in a new tab)“, which also includes Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics. Northrop Grumman, who worked with Blue Origin in the last bidding opportunity in 2020, was elected inside to associate with Leidos Dynetics (opens in a new tab).
NASA has yet to release the full list of HLS bidders, but these teams have been promoting their work so far after the auction closed. (SpaceX was disqualified from participating this time around, as they already have a NASA-approved system for lunar missions in their Starship vehicle.)
The last HLS bidding process in 2020-21 had some twists and turns. NASA originally planned to include at least two companies for the landings. But in April 2021, the agency chose SpaceX on its own, over concerns that it didn’t have enough budget available, officials said at the time.
Blue Origin and Dynetics protested the contract change and added allegations of irregularities in the bidding process. After these concerns were overruled by the US Government Accountability Office, Blue Origin filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Claims on August 13, 2021; this tribunal is set to hear cases against the US government, and months later it ruled in favor of NASA.
These protests delayed the implementation of the SpaceX HLS contract by several months. Then in October 2021, the US Senate ordered NASA to choose a second company for future Artemis missions.
Neither of the two new HLS teams has yet released detailed information about their landers, likely for competitive reasons. The national team hasn’t actually released any design drawings, while the Northrop Grumman-Dynetics team has a unique artist’s conception showing their lander perched on the moon’s surface.
SpaceX plans to use its Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the moon and is facing unrelated delays. SpaceX waits about 18 months to send the system into Earth orbit for the first time, but is awaiting the green light from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA launched a programmatic environmental assessment in 2021 to assess how Starship is affecting the environment at Starbase, which is SpaceX’s facility near Brownsville in southern Texas. The FAA has repeatedly pushed back the deadline from late 2021, citing its need to consult with other agencies and review thousands of public submissions.
In July 2022, he gave SpaceX a checklist of 75 actions to complete before launching the orbital mission. SpaceX last said it hoped to put Starship into orbit by Dec. 1 and hasn’t provided any updated guidance since then.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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