NASA has issued its final call for proposals for the construction and development of the human lander to its commercial partners on September 30. This final version, unlike others, allows companies to skip past the lunar Gateway and go straight to the moon.
The Human Landing System call for proposals is part of NASA’s ambitious plan to take the first woman and the next man back on the lunar surface through the Artemis program that is set to launch in 2024.
The Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program is overseeing how commercial companies can help NASA achieve the 2024 deadline and is now seeking proposals from U.S. companies for the development of human landers. Those proposals are due to NASA Nov. 1.
Notably, the proposal deadline is extremely short with only about a month for companies to be able to present theirs to NASA. According to the space agency, they are intent on meeting the deadline set by the Trump administration and would meet this ambitious goal by “any means necessary.”
Furthermore, NASA justified the short timeline by citing the fact that companies had an opportunity to comment on two earlier drafts.
The current version that NASA sent out to companies is formally known as Appendix H, which incorporates the comments provided by industry on the previous two drafts that the space agency provided. The first draft was published July 19, and a second draft, published Aug. 30.
According to a NASA release, the first two drafts received and accumulated estimate of more than 1,150 comments, to which NASA removed requirements that industry perceived as potential barriers to speed development all the while preserving all the agency’s human safety measures.
Notably, the comments resulted in some modifications intended to streamline the process and give companies more flexibility. One of the biggest is that NASA will no longer require lunar landers to dock with the lunar Gateway to serve as a staging point, at least for initial missions to the lunar surface.
“The agency’s preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the moon,” the agency said in a statement. “NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.”
Marshall Smith, director of NASA’s human lunar exploration program at NASA Headquarters, discussed that change at a Septu26 meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board in Irvine, California.
“Gateway is essential for 2024,” he said, but ”we are allowing contractors, if they want to propose not going to Gateway, they want to propose going directly to an Orion, they can do that for the ’24 mission only,” he said. “But they have to get to the sustainable case of going to Gateway by 2028.”
Industry first commented that attempting to develop a human landing system with the initial draft where NASA required the technology have refuelability mechanisms were in itself a roadblock as they will need to come up with new ways to achieve it, especially when the Gateway itself is yet to be built.
“Initially, whatever it takes to get us to the surface of the moon,” he said. “After that, we have to start fitting into the architecture better to get us to Mars.”
Other changes, incorporated into an earlier draft of the solicitation, eliminate the requirement for the lander to ultimately be reusable and also reduce the number of reports companies are expected to provide to NASA.
NASA has designed a less formal insight model that will be used for accessing critical contractor data while minimizing administrative overhead. As a result, the space agency reduced the number of required contract deliverables from 116 to 37.
On the topic of reusability, Lisa Watson-Morgan, the Human Landing System program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, said in the NASA statement, that the industry is ”right” to question NASA’s requirement regarding the matter.
“We are operating on a timeline that requires us to be flexible to encourage innovation and alternate approaches,” Morgan said. ”We still welcome the option to refuel the landing system, but we removed it as a requirement.”
NASA also previously awarded study contracts to 11 companies in May under a separate NextSTEP solicitation known as Appendix E.
“Every contractor that we think is going to bid on this got contracts under Appendix E,” Smith said at the board meeting. “They’ve been working with us since June, working on the requirements that we’re putting together for Appendix H.”
NASA is expected to make multiple awards to industry to develop and demonstrate a human landing system after evaluating the proposals. The first company to complete its lander will carry astronauts to the surface on the Artemis 3 mission in 2024, and the second company will land in the Artemis 4 mission in 2025. Smith then said that NASA will transition into a lunar lander services contract similar to those for commercial cargo and crew services for the International Space Station.
NASA’s work preparing the call for proposal over the last six months, he added, would have taken the “old NASA” two years to do. ”We know it’s crazy,” he said of the one-month timeline for proposals, “but so is 2024 sometimes.”