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Lunar lander
An artist’s conception shows a lunar lander’s ascent module blasting off from the moon. (NASA Illustration)

After two preliminary rounds, NASA today published its final call for industry proposals to have the first two landers capable of putting astronauts on the moon ready for 2024 and 2025.

NASA’s broad agency announcement, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix H, makes clear that two different companies would be chosen to build human-capable landers. One of them would be used for the Artemis 3 mission, which aims to send two astronauts to and from the lunar surface in 2024. The other would be used for a demonstration mission in 2025.

Those two missions would set the stage for putting an upgraded lander on the moon in 2026 to demonstrate a “sustainable” approach to lunar exploration. That follow-up demonstration mission would serve as a “precursor to procuring lunar landing services as commercial services beginning in 2028,” NASA said.

And here’s the kicker: The proposals for the first two landers are due in a month.

It typically takes six to eight years to develop new types of space hardware. But NASA says a five-year timeline is doable because companies have been reviewing and commenting on two preliminary drafts of Appendix H since mid-July.

“In order to best accelerate our return to the moon and prepare for Mars, we collaborated with industry on ideas to streamline the procurement process,” Marshall Smith, director of the Human Lunar Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release. “The private sector was eager to provide us feedback throughout this process, and we received more than 1,150 comments on the draft solicitations issued over the summer.”

Some companies have been working on lander proposals for far longer. Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, revealed back in 2017 that it was working on a lander design known as Blue Moon — and offered at the time to build it in partnership with NASA. Bezos himself unveiled a full-scale mockup of the lander in May.

Just last weekend, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talked up his company’s Starship super-rocket as part of his vision for missions to the moon as well as to Mars. “We think it would be very exciting to have a base on the moon,” he said.

Lockheed Martin and Masten Space Systems (working in partnership with United Launch Alliance) are also working on concepts for human-rated lunar landers. And there are likely to be others.

NASA said it was making further tweaks in its procurement process to accommodate an accelerated development timeline. For example, the agency will streamline the reporting process and reduce the number of contract deliverables from 116 to 37.

“Reports still are valuable and necessary, but to compromise and ease the bulk of the reporting burden on industry, we are asking for access to the companies’ systems to monitor progress throughout development,” said Nantel Suzuki, Human Landing System program executive at NASA Headquarters. “To maximize our chances of successfully returning to the moon by 2024, we also are making NASA’s engineering workforce available to contractors and asking proposers to submit a collaboration plan.”

It’ll be up to proposers to name a firm fixed price for their landers.

NASA’s plan requires the landers to be compatible with other elements of its lunar mission architecture. That means the astronauts who are bound for the moon would be launched from Earth in an Orion spaceship atop a Space Launch System rocket. The landers would be launched separately on commercial rockets, and become available for each crew’s use at NASA’s Gateway lunar-orbiting outpost.

The space agency originally required the landers to be refuelable and reusable, but NASA said some would-be providers had concerns about that requirement.

“They were absolutely right,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “We are operating on a timeline that requires us to be flexible to encourage innovation and alternate approaches. We still welcome the option to refuel the landing system, but we removed it as a requirement.”

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