Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded contracts to three different groups to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $ 135 million to SpaceX, $ 253 million to defense firm Dynetics (which worked with Sierra Nevada Corporation) and $ 579 million to a team of four companies led by Blue origin (in collaboration with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper).
SpaceX not only received the least amount of money – its proposal also received the worst technical and managerial ratings. NASA Associate Administrator (now Acting Administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “uniquely complex and comprised of equally complex individual subsystems which have yet to be developed, tested and certified with very little time frame to account for delays.” The uncertainties have only been exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record in meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has undergone a number of different flight tests of several prototypes of large-scale spacecraft, including a 10 kilometer high altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest that NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to haul a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its offer of 2.9 billion dollars for the contract, which was much lower than that of its rivals ”.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark of space flight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar landing system. “We are confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What does that mean: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow, especially for Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has is campaigning publicly for NASA to select her for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. This comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified. the only American spacecraft capable of carrying NASA astronauts into space. And that seems to confirm that SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran companies like Northrop Grumman and pushing newer ones away like Blue Origin. However, there is at least one major hurdle: Starship must be launched using a Super Heavy rocket – a design SpaceX has not yet flown.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX vehicles will continue to play a larger role for Artemis, with the lunar exploration program being touted as Apollo’s successor. Former President Donald Trump’s directive to NASA to the return of astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never going to be achieved, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests that NASA may not miss this deadline by many. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the Long-delayed space launch system rocket expected to be ready soon.