After a nearly 50-year hiatus, the United States plans to return to the moon. The goal of the Artemis program is to land the first woman and next man on the surface of the moon by 2024.

According to NASA, that will “enable sustainable human exploration of the moon for the first time in history.” The name Artemis is derived from Greek mythology. Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister and the goddess of the moon.

The Artemis program encompasses NASA’s overall lunar exploration plans. The first in a series of increasingly complex missions, Artemis I will be an unmanned flight test of the space launch system (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. That will be followed by the first flight with crew on Artemis II, and then the Artemis III flight to land astronauts on the moon. NASA plans to use this experience on and around the moon to prepare for its next giant leap—human exploration of Mars.

NASA has launched a new “space race” to develop a spacecraft that will enable astronauts to make a 21st century-style lunar landing. It recently selected several U.S. companies to design and develop a human landing system (HLS) for its Artemis program.

Each of the lunar landers will take off from Earth without people on-board, then rendezvous with the Orion crew capsule. The next-generation HLS will also look much different than its Apollo-era predecessor.

The three companies chosen to produce the spacecraft are Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX. They share contracts worth a total of $967 million, which will fund work to refine their lander concepts in collaboration with NASA engineers. In February 2021, NASA will choose which company will proceed to initial demonstration missions.

The majority ($579 million) of the contract is going to Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Dynetics will receive $253 million, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been awarded $135 million.

“With these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, including the incredible moment when we will see the first woman set foot on the lunar surface,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system, and now we have companies on contract to do the work for the Artemis program.

“Fifty years ago, Apollo proved it is possible to land humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth,” notes Bridenstine. “When NASA returns to the moon with the Artemis program, it will go in a way that reflects the world today, with government, industry and international partners in a global effort to build and test the systems needed for challenging missions to Mars and beyond.”

Working with its partners, NASA plans to fine-tune precision landing technologies and develop new mobility capabilities that will enable humans to travel greater distances and explore new regions of the moon. For instance, it has proposed building a new habitat and testing new power systems to get ready for human exploration of Mars.

“NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, HLS program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions. NASA will later select firms for development and maturation of sustainable lander systems, followed by sustainable demonstration missions.

“[We] will assign NASA personnel to support the work of each contractor, providing direct, in-line expertise to the companies as requested in their proposals, such as design support, analysis and testing,” explains Watson-Morgan. “The HLS program will also perform advanced development and risk reduction activities, working in parallel to better inform the approach for the 2024 mission and the necessary maturation of systems for the future sustaining architecture.”

Each of the proposed HLS designs are different from one another and feature unique approaches, including one-stage, two-stage and three-stage architectures. Although they each share some similarities to their 1960s-era lunar excursion module (LEM) descendant, such as spindly legs, the next-generation HLS will be much larger.

Because it received 60 percent of the total NASA funding, Blue Origin is considered to be the front runner in the new moon race. It serves as the prime contractor for a team that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which built the original LEM.

Their integrated lander vehicle is a three-stage craft that harnesses the proven spaceflight heritage of each company. Lockheed Martin engineers are focusing on the ascent element, which includes the crew cabin, while Northrop Grumman will build the transfer element based largely on its Cygnus cargo module that services the International Space Station.

Dynetics, a subsidiary of Leidos, is a systems integrator that relies on a diverse group of more than 25 subcontractors, including smaller firms such as Draper Laboratory, Oceaneering International, Paragon Space Development Corp., Sierra Nevada Corp. and United Launch Alliance.

The Dynetics HLS concept features a single element providing ascent and descent capabilities, with multiple modular propellant vehicles prepositioned to fuel the engines at different points in the mission. It is rocket-agnostic, capable of launching on a number of commercial rockets. The crew cabin also sits low to the surface, enabling a short climb for astronauts entering or exiting.

SpaceX proposes using a large vehicle dubbed the Starship that would dwarf all the other HLS concepts. The spacecraft, which would land and take off vertically, would be 160-feet tall and 30-feet in diameter. Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks. It would likely feature a number of 3D-printed metal parts, because SpaceX has a long history of deploying additive manufacturing technology at its factory in Hawthorne, CA.

Despite all the excitement generated by the recent SpaceX Demo-2 launch, some experts believe the 2024 timeframe for returning to the moon is too ambitious.

“It’s just not realistic, especially with all of the money and effort being spent on the coronavirus pandemic,” says Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group. “You have to look beyond all the artistic impressions of what a futuristic moon base would look like.

“But, no matter what happens, this competition to develop a new type of lander is a good thing,” notes Caceres. “It will certainly help Blue Origin and SpaceX in their quest to get to the moon and beyond.

“Those two start-ups have a large amount of cash and are more willing to invest in cutting-edge technology,” Caceres points out. “Legacy companies tend to be more conservative in their approach. For instance, I would not expect to see them using any new types of materials, such as carbon-fiber composites, especially if NASA’s ambitious 2024 schedule is going to be followed.”