NASA chooses SpaceX to build the next Lunar Lander

Artistic design of SpaceX's lander on the lunar surface.

Artistic design of SpaceX’s lander on the lunar surface.
Picture: SpaceX

SpaceX won a lucrative contract from NASA to build the first lunar lander since the Apollo program. The announcement comes as a big surprise, as the company run by Elon Musk has beaten two promising competitors, including Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos.

sorry Blue and dynetic origin, but SpaceX will have the privilege of affixing its logo to the next lunar lander, as NASA announced at a press conference today. The move underscores NASA’s growing confidence in its business partner, as the space agency prepares to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.

“It’s a brave and risky choice for NASA,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told me via Twitter. “If Starship works as expected, it will offer a lot more capability than the other competitors. But this is such an important.

The chance that Starship doesn’t actually work “is significantly higher than more traditional options,” he wrote.

McDowell is right – it was do not the safe choice. A vertical landing rocket, as opposed to a 1960s style lunar lander, is something that has never been tried before. In making this decision, it is clear that NASA is looking to the future and continued innovation in this area.

It was already known that the space agency looked to the private sector to design and build a Human Landing System (HLS). NASA gave the three companies $ 967 million to come up with a lander for the next Artemis Moon missions. But NASA hasn’t split those funds evenly, giving Blue Origin $ 579 million, Alabama-based Dynetics $ 243 million, and SpaceX a seemingly token amount of $ 135 million.

Blue Origin’s candidacy appeared to be the main contender. Blue Origin, in addition to receiving the lion’s share of funding from NASA, has partnered with three major companies to make it happen: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. Blue Origin, led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, even delivered a large scale model of its solution, called the Integrated Lander Vehicle, at NASA in August of last year. NASA’s decision to go for SpaceX will likely be a blow to Bezos, who says he has been fascinated by the Moon since he watched the Apollo landings as a young child.

SpaceX will use its upcoming Starship platform for moon landings. The vehicle will include a large cabin and two airlocks for the steps on the moon of the astronauts. Importantly, it is also reusable. The newly awarded contract is $ 2.89 billion, and under the milestone-based deal, SpaceX will have to demonstrate an unmanned lunar landing test flight, as Deputy Associate Administrator Mark Kirasich explained. of the Advanced Exploration Systems division of NASA conference.

Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of the Human Exploration Mission and Operations Directorate at NASA, did not provide details on why SpaceX was chosen over other offerings, saying the move is part of of a broader global strategy to go to the Moon on the way. SpaceX was the best option “at this point,” and NASA will now open talks with other business partners for follow-up competitions. “This is the first step,” Lueders said.

NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk was more open, saying competitors were chosen based on criteria related to technical cost, feasibility and management approach. Although SpaceX was chosen for the initial landing demonstration, NASA officials have made it clear that other business partners will be involved as the project progresses, adding that sustainability will be a key factor moving forward. ‘before. It looks like Blue Origin and Dynetics still have an important role to play after SpaceX’s pending tech demo.

At today’s press conference, Lisa Watson-Morgan, head of the HLS program, said NASA’s upcoming space launch system remains a critical part of Artemis. The gigantic rocket will deliver the Orion capsule – along with its crew – to a predetermined meeting point in lunar orbit. Ideally, this point will be NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a permanent lunar outpost that has yet to be built. There, the crew will leave Orion and enter SpaceX HLS. The crew will then land on the Moon, perform their duties, return to Starship, and return to the outpost.

As for SpaceX, it will launch a spaceship from Earth, refuel the vehicle in low Earth orbit, deliver the HLS to the rendezvous point, and have it wait for the Artemis crew. Oddly enough, SpaceX was not involved in today’s press conference.

Prototype ships are currently being tested at SpaceX’s test facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. These tests appear to be going relatively well, especially the launch aspects, but the company has yet to land the rocket without it exploding in a huge fireball. Elon musk waits the next generation of Starship prototypes, starting with the improved SN15 (currently on the launch pad at Boca Chica), to outperform previous versions.

The new contract is “a great triumph for SpaceX” and “shows the confidence that NASA has gained in the company while working with them on the Falcon 9 payload launches and then on the Crew Dragon,” McDowell said.

Kirasich said 2024 was still the goal of a crewed landing on the moon. Given the importance of Lunar Gateway in the mission architecture, however, this goal seems increasingly implausible.

Under the Trump administration, NASA was ordered to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, but President Biden has not yet engaged to this ambitious date (his team is currently working on a new calendar), despite commit to the Artemis program itself. Interestingly, the Biden administration also pledged to send a woman and man at the moon, and also the first colored person.

After: Artemis astronauts will do serious science on the moon

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