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Blue Origin and SpaceX get million-dollar NASA nod to test Moon lander tech

By Devin Coldewey From TechCrunch

Eleven aerospace companies will share more than $45 million in funds from NASA  to design and test prototypes for the Artemis Moon missions, the agency has announced. Among the established names like Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada are relative newcomers SpaceX and Blue Origin, looking to make a place for themselves on the agency’s biggest push in decades.

The funds are to enable what NASA calls undefinitized contract actions, in which partners get to work before negotiations on the rest of the contract have concluded. It basically shows that time is of the essence and that NASA is willing to pay up front to someone they may not even contract with later, just to get a jump start on the work that needs doing.

And what’s the work? They’ll be cooking up designs and prototypes for the Human Landing System, which as you might guess will take astronauts (and cosmonauts, and perhaps taikonauts) from a high lunar orbit to a low one, then to the surface, then back again. The three elements are called transfer, descent and ascent respectively — and there’s a refueling one as well.

Each company will have a specific set of mechanisms or designs it will be expected to produce, but none is expected to put together the whole shebang.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” said NASA’s Greg Chavers in a press release. “This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system. NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

In other words, this is still an information-gathering phase for NASA, though the contractors must consider it as potentially the first step in producing a major system for Artemis, so they can’t do anything by halves.

None of the companies was assigned design work on the ascender, which suggests the plans for that part aren’t as far advanced as the rest. SpaceX  will be producing a study on the descent element, while Blue Origin is taking on studies for the descent and transfer elements, plus a prototype for the latter.

We probably won’t see these prototypes or studies any time soon — if they’re not chosen for production they may remain trade secrets for future bids or on the off chance NASA changes its mind. Even if they are chosen, they may have to go through several more iterations before they can be shown publicly.

Here’s the full list of companies and their responsibilities under the new funding:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California
    • One transfer vehicle study
  • Blue Origin – Kent, Washington
    • One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study and one transfer vehicle prototype
  • Boeing – Houston
    • One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study and one refueling element prototype
  • Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama
    • One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
  • Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado
    • One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study and one refueling element study
  • Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California
    • One descent element prototype
  • Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia
    • One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study and one refueling element prototype
  • OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey
    • Two refueling element prototypes
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado and Madison, Wisconsin
    • One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype and one refueling element study
  • SpaceX – Hawthorne, California
    • One descent element study
  • SSL – Palo Alto, California
    • One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype

Image Credits: Pat Rawlings/NASA

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