NASA Exercises Option to Add SpaceX’s Human Landing System to Artemis III

In April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX to continue work on developing its proposed Human Landing System for the Artemis Program. NASA announced that it is exercising an option in the original award to add SpaceX’s Human Landing System to the first crewed lunar landing of the Artemis Program, Artemis III.

NASA also announced that it will invite other aerospace companies to submit proposals for lunar landers capable of carrying astronauts between lunar orbit and specific locations on the lunar surface. The lunar landers will have to be capable of docking with the upcoming station that will orbit the Moon. NASA expects to develop the second lunar lander design in tandem with the Human Landing System being developed for Artemis III. The future contract will be known as the Sustaining Lunar Development contract.

“Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond, ensuring we have the capability to carry out a cadence of missions over the next decade,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a November 23 press release.

NASA tapped SpaceX to launch the first components of the station, whose name has been shortened to “Gateway,” as early as November 2024.

Two competitors for the original Human Landing System contract, Blue Origin and Dynetics, had previously filed challenges to NASA’s award to SpaceX with the Government Accountability Office, which dismissed the complaints. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims also dismissed Blue Origin’s lawsuit alleging that NASA unfairly favored SpaceX during the consideration process. Members of Congress weighed in with an amendment to a bill that would have added $10.03 billion to NASA’s budget so that it could move forward with a second proposal as originally planned.

SpaceX had the lowest bid at $2.9 billion for the Human Landing System. Its design is a derivative of its biggest rocket, the Starship/Super Heavy stack. A critical orbital test for Starship is still pending due to delays in the FAA’s regulatory approval process. (Yes, that does annoy Elon Musk, who has had to deal with regulatory red tape a LOT with both SpaceX and Tesla over the past year.)

NASA plans to hold a virtual industry day after the draft solicitation is published. It plans to have sustainable lunar landing capability as early as 2026, according to Human Landing System manager Lisa Watson-Morgan.

“We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the Moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market,” she said.

NASA originally took the same approach with the Commercial Crew program, which uses privately owned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX is the only aerospace company capable of doing the job so far and plans to launch Crew-4 in April. Delays in development of Boeing’s Starliner led to NASA adding three more flights to SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract. When Starliner finally gets up and running, NASA intends to alternate between using the Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for Commercial Crew flights, which so far represent a per-seat cost savings for the space agency. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that the Crew Dragon costs $55 million per seat, an over $30 million per seat savings over flights on the Russian Soyuz.