Back in April 2021, NASA chose SpaceX to develop a lunar lander that will take astronauts to the moon for its future Artemis missions. SpaceX's vehicle won't be the only one flying astronauts to the surface of the Moon, though: NASA has announced that it's welcoming proposals from American companies for landers that can take human spacefarers from the Gateway station in the lunar orbit to the Moon itself. By having that capability, the lander design can be used for missions beyond Artemis III, which will be the first crewed landing on the Moon since Apollo 17.
In its announcement, the agency said it's also exercising an option under its existing contract with SpaceX and is asking the company to change the landing system it proposed to meet the new requirement. "Pursuing more development work under the original contract maximizes NASA’s investment and partnership with SpaceX," the agency said. Having a second lunar lander "provides redundancy in services" and can help ensure reliable transportation for astronauts that will be part of future lunar missions.
While the call for a second lunar lander is new, the plan to have more than one company working on the project isn't. NASA was originally supposed to choose more than one lunar lander provider for Artemis, but the agency didn't receive enough funding from Congress, prompting it to go with SpaceX alone.
Blue Origin, one of the finalists for the contract, filed a complaint with the US Court of Federal Claims, calling the decision "fundamentally unfair." The Jeff Bezos-owned space corporation argued that NASA allowed SpaceX to modify its bid and wasn't given the same chance to do so. To note, the contract SpaceX won was worth $2.9 billion, while Blue Origin's bid was almost twice that at $5.9 billion. NASA believed Blue Origin bid high on purpose on the assumption that NASA would haggle and that it would receive more funding than it did. While the court dismissed Blue Origin's lawsuit in November, SpaceX had to pause work on the lander twice, losing months in the process. When NASA pushed back the Artemis III mission to 2025, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Blue Origin's lawsuit was partly to blame.
NASA will issue a draft solicitation for the second lunar lander in the coming weeks before issuing a formal request for proposals this summer.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA's Human Landing System Program manager, said:
"This strategy expedites progress toward a long-term, sustaining lander capability as early as the 2026 or 2027 timeframe. We expect to have two companies safely carry astronauts in their landers to the surface of the Moon under NASA’s guidance before we ask for services, which could result in multiple experienced providers in the market."