Senate directs NASA to choose another company to build a lunar lander: report

Artist's rendering of astronauts on the moon, part of NASA's Artemis project. NASA has been directed by the U.S. Senate to select a second company for its lunar lander.
The United States Senate's most powerful committee is asking NASA to select a second company for its new moon lander.

NASA announced in April that SpaceX had been awarded the contract to construct the next moon lander under its Artemis program. This program, which seeks to bring humans back to the moon's surface by 2024, and establish a permanent human presence on a nearby satellite, was launched. It was surprising as most people expected that the agency would choose two of three competing companies to win the contract.

SpaceNews reports that NASA has been directed by the Senate Appropriations Committee to select a second company for the development of a crewed lunar landing vehicle. This follows much legal back and forth following NASA's initial decision. This direction was granted with a modest funding increase.

Related: NASA suspends lunar lander construction with SpaceX in Blue Origin lawsuit

The original NASA decision to award the contract to develop and build a lunar landing system (Human Landing System) to SpaceX was met by strong protest from the two other companies involved at the time, Dynetics and Blue Origin. They filed formal protests against this decision to force NASA to reconsider the decision and add another company. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos wrote an open letter asking NASA Administrator Bill Nelson for a contract. He offered to pay up to $2 billion. The company filed a federal lawsuit against NASA to contest their decision. This legal choice temporarily halted HLS development.

Blue Origin may be able to fulfill its wish. According to SpaceNews, the Senate Appropriations Committee, the largest U.S. Senate Committee that oversees all discretionary spending legislation in Congress, released a draft of nine appropriations bills covering the fiscal year 2022. This included funding for NASA.

According to the report, the appropriators state that NASA's HLS program has not been underfunded despite previous claims by the agency. The report shows that the bill contains $24.83 billion for NASA. This is slightly less than the $24.8 million NASA requested and a $100,000,000 increase in funding HLS.

The report says that "NASA's claim to blame Congress and this Committee for not having enough resources to support two HLS team members rings hollow." The committee stated that the current development program should have at least two teams offering services via the Gateway. This refers to NASA's Gateway, which is a planned lunar station.

The report discusses the slight increase of funds for HLS and continues to state that NASA is expected "to ensure redundancy, competition, as well as robust support for research and development for testing and evaluation for no less than two HLS team members."

According to the report, NASA is required to present a plan to Congress that outlines how it will bring in another HLS team and provide support through the Artemis program. According to SpaceNews, NASA will need to submit a plan to Congress within 30 calendar days of the bill becoming law. It will include budget projections for next several years through 2026.

NASA will need to find a way to stretch the small budget for HLS contracts. Administrator Nelson previously expressed his confidence that NASA can secure funding from Congress to support a second lunar landing vehicle contract. He also expressed his optimism about the agency's future, despite the budgetary challenges and the difficulties that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chelsea Gohd can be reached at cgohd@space.com. Follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @Spacedotcom

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