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NASA Artemis: Human Lander Awards

Last night, NASA announced the companies they had selected to design new landers to take the next generation of astronauts to the Moon. This is the latest in NASA partnerships with private companies, something essential to carry out the hugely ambitious Artemis program. Announced via media teleconference, these companies will be tasked with developing landers capable of landing humans on the Moon, as well as ensuring sustainable lunar exploration.

NASA are spending a total of $967 million (£769.7 million) on 3 contracts lasting 10 months. The companies selected are:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington: Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched using its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama: Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure allowing ascent and descent, to launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California: Starship – a fully integrated lander using the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

What is the Artemis mission?

Artemis is the name given to NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon by 2024. They plan to land the first woman and next man on the Moon. Eventually, this will lead to manned missions to Mars and beyond. Artemis is the overarching name for a series of missions, the first of which is Artemis I. This mission will test out the newly designed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built, with the Orion spacecraft carrying the crew and payload atop it. Artemis I will have no crew however; NASA have to be absolutely sure the equipment will work before testing it with people inside!

NASA's Orion spacecraft in flight. Earth in background.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

How will Human Landers help?

Once the Orion spacecraft gets to the Moon, it can’t land as it is. There isn’t the infrastructure on the Moon to launch something back to Earth. Therefore Orion will contain both a lander and a command module that stays in orbit around the Earth. Normally, the lander wouldn’t need to come back. But with astronauts on board, it will need just enough fuel to launch itself back to the orbiting command module. Human landers haven’t been used since the 1970s, so the new ones will likely be much improved!

The three companies here will be developing options, which NASA will review. When the contract is up in February 2021, they will decide which landers will perform demonstration missions and be developed further. There will then be more contracts awarded for further development of the landers and their missions. It just goes to show how much work goes into a space mission, especially one of this magnitude!

Sources: NASA