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NASA looks beyond SpaceX for future lunar landers

NASA has announced it’s welcoming lunar lander concepts from commercial companies other than SpaceX, which already has a contract to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon in the mid-2020s as part of the Artemis program.

Accepted designs will be capable of transporting astronauts and equipment between the moon-orbiting Gateway station and the lunar surface as part of NASA’s long-term goal to create a sustainable human presence on the moon, with a view toward using the base as a steppingstone for the first crewed mission to Mars.

“Under Artemis, NASA will carry out a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: A crewed mission to Mars,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said on Wednesday, March 23. “Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond, ensuring we have the capability to carry out a cadence of missions over the next decade.”

NASA confirmed that it is following two routes for lunar lander development, one involving SpaceX, which was awarded a contract in April 2021 to build the next-generation lander based on the design of its Starship spacecraft, and another inviting other American companies to design a lander for a new landing demonstration mission from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface.

The U.S. space agency also confirmed that, as part of its existing contract, it wants SpaceX to plan for a second lunar landing mission that meets NASA’s requirements for recurring services.

This upcoming award calling for the involvement of commercial companies other than SpaceX is called the Sustaining Lunar Development contract, and will ultimately give NASA more options and extra capabilities when it comes to transporting crew and equipment to the lunar surface.

“This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 time frame,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the Human Landing System Program, said this week.

NASA’s renewed interest in lunar exploration will soon see humans stepping onto the surface of the moon for first time since 1972. Before that, the agency has to test the hardware that will take the crew all the way to our nearest neighbor. This involves the first flight of NASA’s new SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft on a flyby of the moon on the uncrewed Artemis I mission, which could launch as early as May.

Artemis II will follow the same route but with a crew on board, while Artemis III will see astronauts return to the lunar surface before the end of this decade.

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