Finally, NASA does not want to settle for a single company to land its astronauts on the Moon. The American space agency announced on Wednesday March 23 that it has a plan to support the development of a second lunar lander built by a private company. So, if all goes well, SpaceX won’t be the only private company ferrying astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the years to come.
As part of the Artemis program, NASA had chosen SpaceX in April 2021 to build a lander intended to transport humans. The goal of the program is to return humans to the Moon by the mid-2020s, and establish a lasting presence there. But now SpaceX won’t be the only company taking part.
NASA has said through its statement that this is a strategy that will accelerate progress towards long-term sustainable landing capability as early as 2026 or 2027.
A plan that is not new
For the return to the Moon, the original plan was to select several private companies to build landers. However, the funding allocated by Congress allowed only one company to be selected. The agency thus decided to choose SpaceX. This decision had drawn protests and criticism from the other finalists. Blue Origin had even taken legal action which failed. But that action still delayed SpaceX’s development work.
In October 2021, Congress asked NASA to choose a second company to develop a manned lunar lander. At the press conference, Director Nelson said Congress is committed to ensuring NASA has more than one lunar lander. The agency is also hoping for support from the Biden administration.
According to the information, NASA expects to publish a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the second lander by the end of the month. A final RFP will be released later in the spring, and the new builder will be announced in early 2023.
SpaceX contract remains unchanged
The competition will be open to all American companies wishing to participate, except of course SpaceX. The latter will however have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of its current contract in order to carry out additional development work. SpaceX is still scheduled to land the Artemis 3 mission on the Moon in 2025 or 2026.
SpaceX will use its Starship vehicle for the first landing on the lunar surface. Before that, the company plans to perform an uncrewed test flight around 2024. The plan for Artemis 3 is therefore not affected by this announcement regarding the participation of a second private company.