The third contract was awarded to Dynetics, a 46-year old firm based in Huntsville, Alabama, for development of its own lunar lander.
During a call with reporters Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the space agency would assess which of the three proposals could give NASA the “highest probability of success and the lowest risk” in safely getting astronauts to the moon by the space agency’s 2024 deadline.
NASA said this first batch of contracts would give the companies development money to last through the next 10 months. Blue Origin, which NASA said is furthest along in its lunar lander development, will receive $579 million. Dynetics will get $253 million, and SpaceX will receive $135 million.
A NASA spokesperson said the amount of money the companies were awarded was based on what the companies requested. It does not indicate preference for one proposed landing system over another, the spokesperson said.
The lunar lander is a crucial part of the Artemis program, which NASA says will put two astronauts — one man and one woman — on the moon. It will mark the first time humans have set foot on the lunar surface since the final Apollo moon landing in 1972.
The human lander will carry NASA astronauts on the final stretch of the first crewed Artemis mission: After reaching lunar orbit aboard the Orion spacecraft, the astronauts will transfer to the lunar lander and ride down to the moon’s surface. The lander will also lift the astronauts back off the surface and ferry them back to the Orion spacecraft to begin their trek home.
Vice President Mike Pence made the stunning announcement in March 2019 that NASA would return humans to the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary” — a directive for the space agency to drastically accelerate its previous plans to return to the moon in 2028.
NASA later pledged that mission would include the first-ever female astronaut to land on the moon and named the program Artemis, the name of Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
NASA called on the private sector in September to submit proposals for the design of a human lunar lander.
NASA selecting Starship as an option for the moon landing is surprising, as it is more of an all-in-one spacecraft that is designed to carry people off the Earth’s surface, all the way to the surface of the moon or Mars, and back again.
Bridenstine told reporters that the Artemis program has garnered bipartisan support among lawmakers, and NASA’s human spaceflight chief, Doug Loverro, said he does not expect “any impact” to NASA’s budget due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.