Just months after a contentious legal fight over a lunar lander was finalised, NASA is seeking new commercial partners to create a second one.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin was unhappy that Elon Musk's SpaceX was awarded the US$2.9 billion contract to develop the lander, saying NASA's decision was "fundamentally unfair".
Bezos then offered the space agency a US$2 billion discount to offer the contract to his company instead.
Ultimately a federal US judge rejected Blue Origin's legal case, leading Musk to tell journalist Kara Swischer: "You cannot sue your way to the moon, okay? No matter how good your lawyers are."
Not surprisingly, Blue Origin is delighted with NASA's new opportunity, telling website Geekwire it was "thrilled" the space agency was creating competition with a second lander.
"By doing so, NASA will establish the critical redundancy and robustness needed for establishing permanent US lunar presence,” the spokesperson told the website.
"Blue Origin is ready to compete and remains deeply committed to the success of Artemis. We will continue to work with NASA to achieve the United States’ goal to return to the moon as soon as possible."
The new lander will have the capability to dock with a lunar orbiting space station known as Gateway, the space agency said. That will increase crew capacity and be able to transport more science and technology to the Moon's surface.
"Under Artemis, NASA will carry out a series of groundbreaking missions on and around the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: a crewed mission to Mars," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said.
"Competition is critical to our success on the lunar surface and beyond, ensuring we have the capability to carry out a cadence of missions over the next decade."
SpaceX will also benefit from the desire to have another lander.
"Exercising an option under the original award, NASA now is asking SpaceX to transform the company’s proposed human landing system into a spacecraft that meets the agency’s requirements for recurring services for a second demonstration mission," the agency said.
"Pursuing more development work under the original contract maximises NASA’s investment and partnership with SpaceX."
The Artemis missions to the moon have been delayed multiple times already, partly due to the legal battle over the lander but also because of ongoing issues with flight suits for the astronauts.
In November 2021, Nelson said the Trump administration's plans of a 2024 landing on the Moon was no longer viable and suggested it would be 2025.
However, in an appearance before the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee earlier this month, NASA inspector general Paul Martin said plans were likely to slip even further.
"Given the time needed to develop and test the human landing system and NASA's next generation spacesuits, we estimate the date for a crewed lunar landing likely to slip to 2026 at the earliest," he said.