Artist concept of the Blue Origin National Team crewed lander on the surface of the Moon. Credit: Blue Origin.

And then there were three — and this time, Boeing has been left out.

NASA has selected three US aerospace firms to design and develop human landing systems for the agency’s Artemis program, one of which will land the first woman and next man on the surface of the moon by 2024, Xinhua reported.

The three companies are Blue Origin of Kent, Washington; Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama; and SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

Cutting Boeing out of a key NASA spaceflight effort deals a blow to the aerospace giant’s space wing, which for decades has been a key International Space Station contractor and more recently a secondary provider in NASA’s efforts to launch humans to the station under its Commercial Crew Program, Reuters reported.

NASA said it removed Boeing and another company as bidders for the lunar lander award early on in the selection process, though a specific reason was not immediately clear.

The three companies, which include firms of tech billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, will share US$967 million — Blue Origin’s contract is worth US$579M, SpaceX’s US$135M and Dynetics will receive US$253M, The Guardian reported.

Blue Origin proposes a three-stage lander that would abandon its landing engines on the moon’s surface to lighten the load when it is time to return to Earth. SpaceX wants to use its general purpose “Starship” spacecraft, which it says could also be used for Mars missions. Dynetics plan an innovative lander that could be launched on any rocket, The Guardian reported.

“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

Courtesy, NASA

“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,” he said.

NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions, Reuters reported.

Unlike the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon nearly 50 years ago, NASA is gearing up for a long-term presence on Earth’s satellite that the agency says will eventually enable humans to reach Mars, leaning heavily on private companies built around shared visions for space exploration.

Picking three providers allows NASA to have redundancy in case one company falls behind in development, Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s human landing system program manager, told reporters on Thursday.

“I am confident in NASA’s partnership with these companies to help achieve the Artemis mission and develop the human landing system returning us to the Moon” said Watson-Morgan.

“We have a history of proven lunar technical expertise and capabilities at Marshall and across NASA that will pave the way for our efforts to quickly and safely land humans on the Moon in 2024.”

NASA says it is returning to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation.

Working with its partners throughout the Artemis program, the agency hopes to fine-tune precision landing technologies and develop new mobility capabilities that allow robots and crew to travel greater distances and explore new regions of the Moon. 

The agency has proposed building a new habitat and rovers, testing new power systems and much more to get ready for human exploration of Mars. 

“I think we’ve got the potential for an incredibly exciting future in space with a base on the moon, and ultimately sending people and having a self-sustaining city on Mars,” Musk, who also leads electric car firm Tesla, told Reuters on Thursday.