Private companies compete for history as NASA shops for a new lunar lander

NASA's search for a 21st-century lunar lander
NASA's search for a 21st-century lunar lander... 04:52

After years of development and countless tests of its rocket and crew capsule, NASA almost has all the hardware it needs to send astronauts back to the moon.

For the first time since the Apollo program, NASA is shopping for a new lander for its Artemis program.

"When I see this, it just gives me goosebumps," Lisa Watson-Morgan, who leads the program, told CBS News' Mark Strassmann as she walked by the Apollo lander on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Apollo Lunar Module, built by Grumman, was actually two spacecraft in one. The bottom half, the descent stage, lowered the vehicle and its crew to a soft landing.

When it was time to go home, the ascent stage ferried the crew back to their orbiting capsule.

"We're definitely building off Apollo. We're saying, 'Ok, we see what they did, ok, we live in a different era. What makes sense for us today, what makes sense for NASA and what will help us to have more of a sustained presence?'" Watson-Morgan said.

Unlike Apollo, NASA won't own the Artemis landing system. Instead, it will buy a landing service, picking from three dramatically different proposals. The space agency is expected to choose this month from among three designs.

One of those proposals is from Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It is leading a team of aerospace companies that came up with an integrated design. 

Brent Sherwood, Vice President of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin, told Strassmann, "The goal is to learn how to operate there permanently." That's why Blue Origin's propulsion system is based on water because ice at the moon's south pole could someday be converted into rocket fuel.

"Both hydrogen and oxygen are available on the moon in the form of ice in the polar regions. And our vision is based on developing those lunar resources in the future to make these systems reusable instead of bringing everything from Earth," Sherwood said.

Elon Musk's SpaceX proposes a lander based on its Starship design. The company's now testing it in Texas. Outside, an elevator-like system would lower astronauts to the surface.

There's another approach by Dynetics, based in Huntsville, Alabama. It has a horizontal, low-slung layout and has the crew hatch just eight feet above the ground.

"It's one of the most notable aspects of our design...We like to say when Neil Armstrong came off that lander and said 'One small step for man, one giant leap' he didn't actually want it to literally be a one giant leap," Dynetics Executive Jonathan Pettus said.

He gave CBS News a tour inside his company's mock-up.

"And what else about this would Neil and Buzz not recognize?" Strassmann asked.

"Well, first of all, they wouldn't recognize this much space. It's double the size of what they had," Pettus said.

"If you win, what would it mean to the company," Strassmann asked.

"Sure, it's great from a business perspective, but ultimately that ability to have a role in this sort of treasure of the nation, the space program... you know, you can't put a price tag on it," Pettus replied.

The Apollo lander successfully delivered a dozen Americans to the moon. Now NASA has to choose: Which design will land America's next moonwalkers?

"How do you balance sticking with a formula that you know works, as opposed to being open to new ways of doing things?" Strassmann asked.

"Well, because if you've always done what you did, you're always going to get what you got!" Watson-Morgan said. "I mean, you know, we have to try new things...We definitely, I mean, it would be un-American to not try something new, right?"