The U.S. space agency is calling on commercial space companies to propose concepts for landers that can carry humans to the Moon and back, to provide competition for SpaceX for missions beyond Artemis III.
Strong competition will fuel sustained space exploration
Last year, NASA announced a $2.9 billion agreement with SpaceX for it to build a lander for its Artemis III mission, which will carry out the first Moon landing since 1972, taking with it the first woman and the first person of color to reach our celestial neighbor.
NASA's own SLS launch vehicle will carry out the first two Artemis missions, though its capabilities are outmatched by SpaceX's in-development Starship, causing the space agency to opt for the reusable Starship launch vehicle.
Now, NASA has announced it is looking for other partners to build launch vehicles that could continue to carry humans to the Moon beyond SpaceX's Artemis III moon landing, starting around 2026 or 2027. The idea is to provide added competition to bring down costs and drive the space industry to new heights.
Earlier this week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that Starship might finally conduct its orbital maiden flight in May. If all goes to plan, the first humans to launch aboard a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Starship vehicle will be a part of the all-civilian Polaris Program.
Looking to the Moon, Mars, and beyond
Tough this new development isn't incredibly surprising, it highlights NASA's ambitions to establish a sustained presence on the Moon, with a view to eventually sending humans to Mars and beyond. NASA originally planned to pick two companies to build Moon landers for its Artemis missions in order to drive competition and bring down costs, however, it eventually only picked SpaceX due to budgetary restraints.
All of this led to a now-infamous legal dispute between Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and the U.S. space agency, which played a role in delays to the Artemis program. Blue Origin's claim that NASA was "unreasonable" in assessing SpaceX's rival bidders — itself, and Dynetics — was ultimately struck down in court.
"Under Artemis, NASA will carry out a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: a crewed mission to Mars," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press conference. "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."
Nelson also thanked the Biden administration for greenlighting the full originally-requested budget of $1.195 billion to develop Moon landers. The space agency now aims to release a draft call for new lander proposals by the end of the month.
Amid the new announcement, NASA also highlighted its ongoing partnership with SpaceX, stating that — all going to plan — it aims to conduct a third lunar landing using the company's Starship launch vehicle. SpaceX also tweeted that "NASA has selected Starship for an additional mission to the Moon with astronauts as part of the Artemis program!" Afterward, SpaceX and NASA's other selected partner will likely compete for future contracts, driving the U.S. space industry towards its goal of sending the first humans to Mars by the 2030s.