NASA is going back to the Moon and it intends to stay. The exact date is a bit uncertain right now for several reasons, but the plan of having long-term explorations of our natural satellite requires a suite of technologies that require testing and planning.
For this reason, early this year, the space agency started the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2). NASA wanted to involve commercial partners to make advancements towards future human landing concepts, conduct risk-reduction activities, and even help the agency work out how to best use private companies to ensure success in the future crewed lunar missions.
Five companies were awarded contracts for a total of $146 million. They were Blue Origin, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and SpaceX. The work will be conducted over the next 15 months.
“Establishing a long-term human presence on the Moon through recurring services using lunar landers is a major Artemis goal,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “This critical step lays the foundation for U.S. leadership in learning more about the Moon and for learning how to live and work in deep space for future missions farther into the solar system.”
The work of these companies will shape NASA's strategy in terms of technologies and requirements in getting astronauts to and from the Moon. These private enterprises will test critical tech, and perform evaluations of crucial vehicles such as future lunar landers. Performances, designs, construction standards, safety, and the health of the astronauts need to be fully understood before any such vehicle can be employed in space.
And the human landing system is one of several reasons why the original goal of the return to the Moon by 2024 is not going to be feasible. NASA has awarded the construction of the first lunar lander vehicle to SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin didn’t take it well. The company first challenged NASA’s decision at the US Government Accountability Office and having lost that appeal took NASA court. So NASA made the decision to stop work on the lander as the US Court of Federal Claims investigates. This should be resolved by November 1, one way or another.
"Collaboration with our partners is critical to achieving NASA’s long-term Artemis lunar exploration goals,” added Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System Program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “By partnering with innovative U.S. companies, we will establish a robust lunar economy while exploring new areas of the Moon for generations to come.”