ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and a lesser-known company, Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics, are preparing for a major decision by NASA early in 2021 about which company will build human-carrying landers for trips to the moon.
The three space firms were selected in April to submit proposals early this month. Having done that, they now await NASA's decision, which is scheduled for February. The space agency has indicated it could pick one or two of the proposals.
At stake is the future of lunar exploration for the United States and large, multimillion-dollar contracts as part of NASA's planned Artemis program. The agency had a goal of landing people on the moon again by 2024, although Congress hasn't funded NASA's budget requests to meet that schedule.
A contract for a human lander may be awarded, but it's not clear if such landers will be built anytime soon, said Marco Cáceres, space analyst for the Teal Group based in Fairfax, Va.
"Artemis was proposed in another age in our history before the pandemic and the recent election, so I'm not convinced it will happen," Cáceres said Tuesday. "From a technical standpoint, the Dynetics proposal has strengths, but NASA tends to pick a known quantity for such spaceflight missions."
SpaceX already has multiple high-profile contracts with NASA, including the commercial crew contract to take astronauts to the International Space Station, while Blue Origin has flown NASA hardware on the company's New Shepard rocket.
Blue Origin lined up legacy space companies Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to help develop a lander, Cáceres noted.
Blue Origin, of Kent, Wash., plans to develop a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket. But neither of those rockets has launched; both are being developed.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., is developing the Starship, a fully integrated lander intended for launch on the Starship Super Heavy rocket. It also is being developed, having completed a prototype test flight to nearly 8 miles high Dec. 9.
Dynetics' lander will provide ascent and descent capabilities and also is planned to be launched on the Vulcan. Dynetics is a tech and engineering firm and a subsidiary of engineering firm Leidos.
All three proposed landers could be refueled at the moon, but Dynetics' lander is designed to be easily reusable for multiple hops around the moon, Robert Wright, Dynetics' program manager, said in an interview Thursday.
Dynetics is the only lander with a horizontal crew cabin, as opposed to an upright, vertical cabin, which would allow faster and easier access to the lunar surface, Wright said.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin would require a crew to descend on long ladders from a cabin high atop a landing vehicle.
"We're in the unique position of being closer to the lunar surface than the other competitors have shown in their concepts," Wright said.
"Having the horizontal capsule, or chamber, means astronauts would have more room to put spacesuits on, and a dust barrier to prevent gritty moon dust from entering the quarters."
But putting the crew cabin higher over the ground is an advantage for Blue Origin's lander, Blue Moon, the company's chief scientist Steve Squyres said in a recent video news release.
"When you land on an unprepared surface, on no landing pad, there are bad things that can happen," such as rocket thrusters kicking up sharp rocks, Squyres said. "The other thing that can happen is you can crunch your engine on the ground when you land."
Therefore, he said, the Blue Moon lander would put the crew and ascent engines on top, "out of harm's way."
Dynetics' Wright said the company's lander still protects the engines with its design, which shows the bottom of a barrel-shaped capsule extending below the engines to protect them from the ground.
SpaceX declined a request for comment. NASA declined requests for interviews "to protect the integrity of the process" as the contract award announcement nears, a spokeswoman said.
The human lander contract will mark a milestone toward "sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and establishing sustainable exploration by the end of the decade," according to a NASA statement.