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Although NASA's plans to land humans on the Moon by 2024 face some political headwinds, the space agency has taken its first concrete step toward making its ambitions a reality.
On Thursday, the space agency chose 11 companies to develop concepts and prototypes for its lunar lander. The companies chosen for the awards, a total of $45.5 million for all contracts, include a mix of aerospace bluebloods such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, premier new space firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and smaller companies like Masten Space Systems. The companies have six months to complete their work.
The awards cover design work for two of the three components of NASA's proposed “Human Landing System.” As presently envisioned, NASA's plan for landing humans on the Moon will involve a “transfer” vehicle to carry the lander from a Gateway in a high orbit above the Moon down to low-lunar orbit, a “descent” vehicle to carry the crew down to the surface, and then an “ascent” vehicle to separate from the descent module and ferry the astronauts back into low-lunar orbit.
So far, NASA has awarded design funds for the “transfer” and “descent” elements of the lander, but not the “ascent” vehicle—which will house astronauts throughout their journey, except for when they venture on to the lunar surface. The awards also include funds for companies to build “prototypes” for important subsystems in the transfer and descent vehicles.
“These prototypes are for key components or subsystems that require advanced development to support the human lander system” Nantel Suzuki, a program executive for the lander at NASA Headquarters, told Ars. “They require early development in order to lower the technical and schedule risk for human lunar missions. That’s why we’re investing now.”
House budget released
NASA's announcement came on the same day the House Appropriations Committee released the draft fiscal year 2020 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies funding bill, which includes allocations for the space agency. The bill reflects the challenges ahead for NASA on Capitol Hill.
On Monday, NASA said it needs an additional $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2020, on top of the President's budget request, to kick-start a 2024 Moon landing program, named Artemis. Although the House's funding bill was likely written weeks before NASA submitted this request for supplemental funding, it ignores not only this request, but also spurns efforts to spend more money on a lunar lander.
The House budget, instead, provides significantly more funding for NASA's Space Launch System, $2.15 billion and the Orion spacecraft, $1.425 billion, than the White House asked for in its budget request. It also provides $600 million less for a lunar lander and Gateway. This is a strong signal from House appropriators that, on first blush at least, they are not moved by the White House's desire for an accelerated Moon program.
From prior budgets, NASA had the funding it needed to make the preliminary lander design awards issued Thursday to the 11 aerospace companies. However, if it is to press ahead with actual development of a lunar lander, NASA will need substantially more funding in fiscal year 2020. To have any hope of reaching the Moon by 2024, senior engineers at the agency have said they really need the additional funding by October or so of this year, adding a sense of urgency to NASA's budgeting process this year.