NASA lunar lander
The awards announced to 11 companies May 16 cover initial studies and prototype development of some hardware for portions of lunar landers intended to meet NASA's 2024 lunar landing goal. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA announced May 16 it has selected 11 companies to begin studies and initial prototype development of portions of lunar landers the agency hopes can help it meet its 2024 human landing goal.

The awards are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) series of broad agency announcements that support public-private partnerships to develop technologies needed for NASA’s exploration plans. Companies receiving these awards are required to make their own contributions in addition to NASA’s combined funding of $45.5 million.

The 11 companies selected represent a broad cross-section of the commercial space industry, from established aerospace companies to emerging startups:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • Blue Origin
  • Boeing
  • Dynetics
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Masten Space Systems
  • Maxar Technologies (formerly SSL)
  • Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems
  • OrbitBeyond
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • SpaceX

The awards are for human lander studies formally known as NextSTEP Appendix E. Those studies are limited to descent stages, transfer vehicles and refueling elements. At the time NASA released the NextSTEP solicitation Feb. 7, the agency was planning to conduct studies on lander ascent modules within the agency.

The NextSTEP Appendix E proposals were due at NASA March 25. The next day, Vice President Mike Pence announced in a speech that the White House was directing NASA to accelerate the timeline for a human lunar landing from 2028 to 2024. Subsequently, NASA said it will solicit proposals for integrated lander systems under a separate NextSTEP procurement, Appendix H, while continuing the Appendix E lunar lander work.

The awards require companies to pay at least 20 percent of the overall cost of each study or prototype project, with the work to be completed in six months. To allow the companies to start work immediately, NASA said it’s using an approach called “undefinitized contract actions” so that companies can start work while the contract terms are still being negotiated.

“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 Greg Chavers, human landing system formulation manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in an agency statement about the awards.

The small value of the awards and the short timeline will limit the scope of the work. “In this first study phase we’re actually going to build some prototype hardware. We’re going to build some pumps, some cooling systems and other pieces,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a NASA town hall meeting May 14. He said NASA engineers may be embedded in some of those companies as part of the prototype development.

The announcement of the NextSTEP Appendix E awards didn’t discuss the details of each company’s work beyond whether they were doing studies or prototype development, and for what part of the lunar lander architecture. However, some companies have disclosed their plans for lunar lander systems, like Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander; company officials previously said they submitted a NextSTEP proposal.

NASA plans to release the solicitation for the NextSTEP Appendix H integrated lunar lander studies this summer. Gerstenmaier, at the town hall meeting, said that he hopes that when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 “we can start laying in place the contracts that actually start building hardware that gives us a lander.”

That schedule will be contingent on the success NASA has in winning additional funding for its 2024 lunar plans. In an amendment to its fiscal year 2020 budget released May 13, the agency sought an additional $1.6 billion, including $1 billion for lunar lander studies.

However, a House version of a spending bill that funds the agency released May 16 provides little in the way of that additional funding. Instead it cuts funding for exploration research and development, which includes both the lunar Gateway and lunar lander efforts, by $618 million from the agency’s original request.

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...