NASA is now officially accepting proposals for lunar lander designs that can carry people to the surface of the moon. The space agency today made a final call to the commercial space industry, with proposals to be submitted on November 1.
Human moonlanders are a crucial part of NASA's Artemis program, an initiative to send people back to the surface of the moon in less than five years. These landers are meant to live in a new space station that NASA wants to build in orbit around the moon, called the Gateway. Astronauts are likely to travel to the Gateway in the future NASA rocket – the Space Launch System or SLS – and from there they travel to the moon in the landers.
NASA is specifically looking for landers that consist of two to three main components. First the descent phase – hardware that lowers the vehicle to the surface of the moon. Second, the ascent phase, which is what astronauts will ride into as they ascend from the lunar surface and return to the Gateway. A third component is known as the transfer stage; this piece is in fact a tugboat that can transport the other two elements of the gateway to an orbit closer to the moon, making it easier to get everything from and to the surface.
Companies also need to specify how they bring their moonlanders to the Gateway. They can use commercial vehicles, such as the new New Glenn rocket from SpaceX or Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin, or they can use the future SLS rocket from NASA, which is due to fly by 2021 at the earliest.
From the proposals it receives, NASA ultimately plans to select two of those companies to actually go through the process of making the landers and sending them to the Gateway. The lander of a company will be tasked with carrying out the first coveted landing with people on board in 2024, while the second in 2025 will land another crew. However, NASA does not intend to carry out unscrewed test landings with these designs in advance.
Some companies have already given the public a taste of their plans. Lockheed Martin unveiled a lunar landing design derived from the company's Orion capsule, on which NASA astronauts will ride on top of NASA's SLS. Jeff Bezos also demonstrated the Blue Moon concept of the lunar lander of Blue Origin in May, which he believes the company has been working on for the past three years.
This final call to industry comes a few months after NASA has posted two draft documents with details of what landers and contracts it was looking for from the commercial space sector. In those months, companies have provided NASA feedback when processing its request. NASA claims it has removed language and requirements that companies thought it could delay the development schedule. The entire process – from drafts to final call – was much faster than many of NASA's other contract selections, which can take many months to years. The accelerated schedule was needed to meet NASA's vice-president Mike Pence's challenge from March of this year – to send people back to the moon four years earlier than the agency had planned.
Although NASA made this appeal to the industry quickly, these moonland selections all depend on what kind of budget the space agency will receive next year. To get a head start on the Artemis program, Trump's administration asked for an additional $ 1.6 billion for NASA next year in a budget change, with $ 1 billion for the development of new lunar citizens. However, it is not clear whether NASA will actually receive those extra funds. The Senate Credit Committee has recently adopted a financing invoice for next year that gives NASA a huge boost in its budget, but only provides $ 744.1 million for the development of new moon technologies for Artemis.
The final budget for 2020 is still being determined, but NASA says money is the key. "For this year, we need that budget change so we can get the landing systems – get those contracts out," Ken Bowersox, acting head of NASA's research firm, testified before the House Science Committee in September. "Because that is now our long stick to come to the surface of the moon."