WASHINGTON — The two companies with NASA contracts to develop crewed lunar landers are also beginning work on cargo versions of their spacecraft.

NASA has exercised options in Human Landing System (HLS) awards made to Blue Origin and SpaceX to begin initial design and development work of versions of their landers that can carry large amounts of cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA made a passing reference to the work in a Jan. 9 announcement about the delays to the Artemis 2 and 3 missions. “NASA also shared that it has asked both Artemis human landing system providers – SpaceX and Blue Origin – to begin applying knowledge gained in developing their systems as part of their existing contracts toward future variations to potentially deliver large cargo on later missions,” the agency said in a press release.

“In the last few months, we’ve asked both of our Human Landing System providers, SpaceX and Blue Origin, to being applying the work they’re doing on the human-rated versions of the landing vehicles to develop a cargo variant that can land large cargo on the surface,” said Amit Kshatriya, deputy associate administrator for the Moon to Mars Program in NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Development, in a Jan. 9 media call. However, NASA provided no other details about that work at the time, with the briefing focused on the delays to the upcoming Artemis missions.

In a Jan. 19 statement to SpaceNews, NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton said that the work is being done under options to Blue Origin’s HLS contract, awarded in May 2023, and the “Option B” award to SpaceX in November 2022, which modified the original HLS contract SpaceX won in April 2021. The options, which cover work through a preliminary design review, do not require additional funding beyond the $3.4 billion to Blue Origin and $1.15 billion for SpaceX’s Option B.

“NASA expects these large cargo landers to have high commonality with the human landing systems already in work with adjustments to the payload interfaces and deployment mechanisms,” NASA stated. “The preliminary design requirements include delivering 12 to 15 metric tons to the lunar surface.”

NASA added that no payloads have been identified yet for those landers. The earliest the cargo landers would be used is Artemis 7, a mission projected for no earlier than the early 2030s.

Neither company has publicly discussed work on cargo versions of their HLS landers. Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, did mention the ability of his company’s Starship vehicle to land large payloads on the moon in a presentation posted by SpaceX Jan. 12. “We want to far exceed what NASA’s asked us to do,” he said. “We want to go far beyond the NASA requirements and actually be able to put enough payload on the moon with enough frequency that you could actually have a permanently occupied moon base.”

Blue Origin and SpaceX are not the only ones working on large cargo lander. The European Space Agency is in the early phases of development of Argonaut, a cargo lander that ESA is proposing to offer for future Artemis missions. Argonaut, as currently designed, would carry about two metric tons of cargo, far less than what NASA is proposing with the cargo HLS variants.

The cargo lander options that NASA has exercised are not the first NASA contracts to the companies regarding delivering cargo to the moon. NASA selected the two companies, along with three others, in the second round of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in November 2019. SpaceX offered Starship, which the company said at the time could deliver up to 100 metric tons to the lunar surface, while Blue Origin offered its original cargo version of its Blue Moon lander, capable of taking several metric tons to the moon.

Neither Blue Origin nor SpaceX have won any CLPS task orders, and it is unclear if either company bid on any of the missions NASA has awarded through the program.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...