Handing out its first Moon-bound contracts in half a century, NASA has contracted three companies to build lunar landers as it settles down to beat the president’s 2024 deadline for Project Artemis. But Boeing is not one of them.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and defense contractor SAIC’s subsidiary Dynetics received the coveted three contracts to compete to build the lunar lander NASA hopes will deliver American astronauts to the Moon within four years, the agency announced on Thursday.
The mission, dubbed Project Artemis, seeks to study the region near the Moon’s south pole in the hope of setting up a permanent base there. NASA is especially eyeing the ice found in its craters in the hope it can be used to sustain life or as fuel.
Blue Origin’s ‘Integrated Lander Vehicle,’ a three-stage lander built in conjunction with defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper; Dynetics’ ‘Human Landing System,’ which involved over 25 subcontractors; and SpaceX’s ‘Starship’ craft will be funded through February 2021 under the current contracts, at which point NASA might put one aside to focus on the other two. A NASA team will be embedded with the companies while they build the landers.
The awarding of lunar-lander contracts is the farthest any of the US attempts at returning to the Moon since the last Apollo Project launch in 1972 have gotten, but NASA and the White House still must convince Congress to fund the program, expected to cost $35 billion over the next four years.
That’s easier said than done. Project Artemis has run into a number of hurdles, mostly involving the increasingly troubled defense contractor Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) – the rocket that is supposed to deliver the astronauts to orbit. Continuing delays – the SLS’ launch has been pushed back to November 2021, and a recent Government Accountability Report warned that it “may develop leaks when it is filled with fuel” – have forced NASA to scrap an intermediate step, a “Gateway” space station that would orbit the Moon and serve as an outpost for lunar landers to dock and refuel, in the interest of meeting the 2024 deadline. The Gateway remains a future goal, but will not be involved in the initial landing effort.
Tellingly, the bid Boeing submitted for the lander contract was rejected despite promising the “fewest steps to the Moon.” The contractor has been in hot water for the last year after a pair of its 737 MAX passenger jets crashed within six months of each other, killing everyone on board. The disasters triggered an investigation revealing a disturbingly profit-centric culture reaching into all corners of the company, which appeared to place safety – and human lives – last. Boeing’s recent spaceflight efforts haven’t fared much better, with its Starliner spacecraft designed to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station failing an unmanned test flight earlier this month – at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars.
While previous administrations have set space exploration goals that went nowhere (Barack Obama declared the US would go to Mars, while his predecessor George W. Bush was content with a return to the Moon), NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine insisted in an interview with the Washington Post – owned by Blue Origin’s Bezos – that the agency was really serious this time, affirming the landing was “starting to feel very, very real.”