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NASA Picks Moon Lander Designs by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos Rocket Companies

It seems unlikely the space agency will meet President Trump’s goal of a return to the lunar surface by the end of 2024.

Credit…Jude Guidry/NASA


NASA announced on Thursday that it had picked three designs for spacecraft to take astronauts back to the surface of the moon.

Two are from prominent billionaire-led rocket companies: Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. A third is led by Dynetics of Huntsville, Ala. NASA will pay the three companies $967 million over 10 months for initial design development work. NASA’s Artemis moon landing program faces an uncertain future as technical, budgetary and political issues — as well as additional delays resulting from the coronavirus pandemic — imperil its progress.

”This is the last piece we need in order to get to the moon and now we’re going to have that under development,” Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference announcing the selections.

Not among the winners was Boeing, which has played a major role in almost all NASA human spaceflight programs.

During the coming months, NASA engineers will work with the companies to evaluate and refine the different designs. By next February, the end of the initial 10-month phase, NASA will have a good idea which of the landing systems has the best prospect of being ready for the first lunar landing, said Lisa Watson-Morgan, the program manager overseeing the effort.

Mr. Bridenstine and other NASA officials expressed confidence that the space agency would be able to meet the Trump administration’s goal of landing the first woman and next man on the moon by the end of 2024. The last lunar landing by humans, the Apollo 17 mission, occurred in 1972.

The NASA administrator was also optimistic that Congress would finance Artemis even with the federal government facing huge deficits because of economic fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He said that NASA accounted for a small fraction of federal spending, and that the agency enjoyed broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.

“It’s important that this agency do this now, because our country and in fact the whole world has been shaken by this coronavirus pandemic,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “And yet we need to give people hope. We need to give them something that they can look up to, dream about.”

The three lander systems are very different, and NASA plans to select up to two of them for further development.

Blue Origin’s design is most like the lander used during the Apollo mission, with a large descent stage that slows the spacecraft as it comes down from orbit to the surface. The descent stage then acts as the launching pad for smaller module on top to take the astronauts back to orbit to rendezvous with a capsule, Orion, for the trip back to Earth.

Blue Origin partnered with two larger aerospace companies: Lockheed Martin for the ascent module and Northrop Grumman for what is called the transfer module.

Dynetics’ lander would not have separate descent and ascent stages, but an integrated spacecraft that would take care of both landing on and takeoff from the moon. The system includes other modules to provide propellant to the lander at different points in the mission.

SpaceX’s lander, by comparison, is gargantuan — based on its Starship spacecraft that is eventually intended to take people to Mars. It would be capable of taking 100 tons of cargo to the surface of the moon.

In principle, SpaceX’s design could eliminate the need for other spacecraft NASA plans to use to get astronauts and the lander to the moon’s orbit. However, Mr. Bridenstine said that rocket, the Space Launch System built by Boeing, is “the only rocket that’s going to be human rated by 2024 that will take humans tot he moon.”

Even if the landers can be built, tested and launched in time, the remainder of the Artemis moon program is behind schedule and over budget, with uncertain support from Congress. NASA has been working for a decade on the Space Launch System and Orion capsule.

An audit released on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office found that the costs of NASA’s major projects continue to spiral upward. Such projects, which have total price tags of $250 million or more, have experienced an average cost increase of nearly 31 percent, up from 27.6 percent last year. The Space Launch System and Orion account for most of the overrun.

The audit also revealed concerns by program managers that the core stage of the S.L.S. rocket might leak when it is loaded with liquid hydrogen propellant.

The audit said additional cost increases were expected when NASA revises its timeline for the moon mission. The first launch of the rocket in an uncrewed test will not occur until next year, and even that may now be optimistic because of the pandemic.

NASA has shut down work at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the rocket is being built, and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the first Space Launch System booster is to be tested.

The details of the first Artemis moon landing, which is to occur on the third Space Launch System mission, also remain in flux.

NASA had been planning to use a small outpost known as Gateway in orbit around the moon where the lander would be sent ahead of time. The astronauts would first go to the Gateway aboard the Orion capsule, then transfer to the waiting lander to go down to the moon. The Government Accountability Office audit warned that parts of Gateway were in danger of falling behind schedule.

Gateway remains in NASA’s future plans but Mr. Bridenstine said it, “is not required for the 2024 mission. In fact, I will go as far to say that it is not likely we will use the Gateway for the 2024 mission.”

Instead, it is possible the lander and Orion might rendezvous in lunar orbit. That is one of the key details to be worked out to during the study period.

“The solution set is really open at this point,” Mr. Bridenstine said.

NASA has turned to private companies for Artemis to succeed without the large budgets that NASA had during the 1960s for the Apollo missions.

In the past, NASA has led the design process and used what are known as cost-plus contracts. The companies were reimbursed for what they paid to build the spacecraft plus an additional fee for their services. But increasingly, NASA is using a markedly different approach with fixed-price contracts where NASA lays out what it needs but leaves it to the companies to come up with the particular solutions.

NASA is aiming to repeat the success of a similar approach that has provided rockets to launch cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. It then used that template when it hired Boeing and SpaceX to take astronauts to the International Space Station.

But when there is insufficient oversight by the space agency, surprises with potentially catastrophic consequences can pop up. An uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule in December was cut short because the spacecraft’s clock was incorrectly set, and a subsequent investigation revealed major problems with how Boeing had developed and tested the Starliner’s software.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon also encountered technical challenges and delays, but it is now scheduled for its first mission with astronauts on May 27.

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