NASA Taps Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to Help Transport Humans to the Moon Again

Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

The three private companies will develop landing systems for NASA's Artemis missions.

NASA on Thursday revealed it picked three U.S. companies—SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics—to perfect and produce human landing systems for its ambitious Artemis program. 

The first woman and next man will be delivered to the moon’s surface via one of the to-be-tuned landers by 2024.

Through separate contracts worth a combined total of $967 million, the companies will embark on a 10-month base period to improve their lander concepts. Following a range of demonstrations and future steps to ferret out the top designs, the space agency will not purchase one of the final vehicles down the line, but instead plans to procure trips to the lunar surface through commercial space transportation services.

“This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in the award announcement. He added that “with these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.”

Half a century after sending and returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in history through its Apollo program, NASA through Artemis aims to not only land the first woman and next man on Earth’s natural satellite but also traverse more of the lunar surface than ever before, establish sustainable exploration by 2028—and eventually send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. The program is named for Apollo’s twin sister. And for the agency’s first to-the-moon mission in the program, the human landing systems will be the final mode of transport that ferries astronauts to the surface, after they reach lunar orbit on the Orion spacecraft. 

Each of the chosen companies will create their own unique human landing systems—and the concepts they’ve proposed are diverse in range. 

Blue Origin is the prime contractor of what NASA dubs the “National Team.” The company, backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, has partnered up with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to create the Integrated Lander Vehicle, a three-stage lander that can be launched individually on commercial rockets or combined to launch on NASA’s own system. While Draper will offer up navigation guidance and flight avionics, Blue Origin will build the descent element, Lockheed will produce the reusable ascent vehicle and Northrop Grumman will create the transfer element vehicle, which together make up the system. 

Leidos subsidiary Dynetics will develop the Dynetics Human Landing System, which encompasses a single structure offering ascent and descent capabilities that is capable of launching on a variety of commercial rockets. “The system’s crew module is designed to accommodate two crew members for nominal missions from lunar orbit to the lunar surface and back, including surface habitation for about a week. Alternatively, it can ferry up to four suited crew members to or from the lunar surface,” the company said in a statement. 

In its proposal, Dynetics detailed plans to tap into what NASA called “a robust team with more than 25 subcontractors specializing in both the larger elements and the smaller system-level components” of the lander system. 

The agency also selected Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is developing the Starship—a fully integrated lander and reusable launch system that’s designed not only to reach the moon but also Mars and other outer-space destinations. 

According to NASA’s announcement, its assigning and dedicating agency employees to provide expertise directly, throughout the development process. 

“We have much work ahead, especially over these next critical 10 months,” Douglas Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate, said. “I have high confidence that working with these teammates, we will succeed.” 

Five companies in total submitted bids for the human landing system contract. The company’s source selection statement, launched Thursday, indicates that the Boeing Corporation and Vivace Corp. were removed from further consideration “earlier in the process.”