New Details About the Artemis Moon Lander and Moon Base
Matthew Greenwood posted on June 30, 2020 |
Three companies are competing to build NASA’s next-gen lunar lander.

NASA is progressing in its plans on taking people back to the moon—including the first woman to land on the lunar surface—by 2024. The Artemis program also aims to create a sustained human presence there. It will be an invaluable testing ground for the long-term objective of putting human beings on Mars.

We’ve taken a look at the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft that will be used on Artemis missions. Since then, interesting new details have emerged around the lander and plans for a permanent base on the moon. Let us see how astronauts could get from the Orion to the lunar surface.

Three Landers in Development

NASA awarded three fixed-price contracts to private space sector companies to develop a lunar lander: Blue Origin ($579 million), SpaceX ($135 million) and Dynetics ($253 million). Each company will produce its own lander in partnership with the agency, then offer that lander to any of its customers, including NASA. This is a big departure from the way the agency used to do such things, where they would give a cost-plus contract to one supplier.

“We have three notably different architectures, from a one-stage, a two-stage and a three-stage architecture,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s Human Landing System program manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “That achieves the innovations and the dissimilar redundancy in approaches that we wanted.”

Blue Origin

Blue Origin has teamed with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper—together the “Blue Origin National Team”—to develop a three-stage lander. Blue Origin is working on the descent module based on its Blue Moon lunar lander and liquid fuel BE-7 engine. Lockheed’s reusable ascent module will be based on the Orion—the company is the prime contractor for that vehicle—and Northrop is adapting its Cygnus cargo craft to be used as a transfer vehicle that lowers the lander from high lunar orbit. Draper will lend its avionics and descent guidance, which have already demonstrated on past NASA missions, to the project.


SpaceX is tailoring its Starship spacecraft design for use as a crew lander—by far the biggest lander of the three. The company would remove the heat shield, steering fins and landing flaps and leave the vehicle in orbit for multiple trips to and from the moon. It would land and take off vertically, powered by Raptor engines that can generate almost 500,000 pounds of thrust.

The Starship lander would also have significant room for storage, habitat and cargo, making it particularly useful for NASA’s long-term lunar habitat plans. But the agency seems to consider this option the riskiest, acknowledging SpaceX’s history of delays and overly complex design. Being parked in orbit rather than coming back to Earth, it would be reliant on other Starships for fuel and repair supplies, increasing the design’s complexity.

“It’s obviously a very different solution set than any of the others,” Bridenstine said. “But it also could be absolutely game-changing, so we don’t want to discount it.”


Dynetics is leading a team of about 25 partners, including United Launch Alliance, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Astrobotic and Tuskegee University, to design its two-stage lander. The vehicle will be based on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander and will be able to land two astronauts and supplies for a week on the lunar surface or transport four crew members to and from the moon.

Dynetics’ lander could be the easiest for astronauts to get in and out of. Its low-slung design puts it closest to the surface of the moon, requiring only a short trip down a stepladder.

Overview of the three proposed landers.

NASA will review all three projects in February 2021 and will likely pick two of the three concepts to develop a full-scale lander, but the agency hasn’t ruled out pursuing all three.

“This is the last piece that we need to get to the moon, and now we’re going to have that under development,” Bridenstine said.

Artemis Base Camp

NASA also has ambitious plans to create an Artemis base camp at the south pole for its new lander to arrive at.

The facility would initially house and sustain four astronauts for about a week. It would be expanded to eventually include its own power source, communications and research capabilities, a radio telescope, waste disposal and landing pad. The base camp would also include a moon rover for short trips and a mobile habitat capable of supporting human life for 30 to 45 days for longer missions away from base.

The landers in development will likely need to have significant cargo capability to ferry supplies to the base camp—something the Apollo landers never had to factor into their designs.

“After 20 years of continuously living in low-Earth orbit, we're now ready for the next great challenge of space exploration—the development of a sustained presence on and around the moon,” Bridenstine said. “For years to come, Artemis will serve as our North Star as we continue to work toward even greater exploration of the moon, where we will demonstrate key elements needed for the first human mission to Mars.”

To learn more about the Artemis project, check out Breaking Down NASA’s Hardware For Returning Astronauts to the Moon.

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