Nasa selected SpaceX to have its first astronauts land on the surface of the Moon since 1972, the US space agency said this past week, marking a huge victory for Elon Musk’s company. The $ 2.9 billion contract includes the Starship prototype spacecraft being tested at SpaceX’s South Texas facility.
“Today I am very excited, and we are all very excited, to announce that we have chosen SpaceX to continue the development of our integrated human landing system,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of that program at NASA.
NASA’s most trusted partner
SpaceX wins out over Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Defense contractor Dynetics to be the sole supplier of the system, a surprising milestone in the practices of NASA, which typically chooses multiple companies in the event that one fails. Industry analysts said the decision underscores that the company, founded by Musk in 2002 with the goal of colonizing Mars, is NASA’s most trusted partner in the private sector.
Last year, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully send a crew to the International Space Station, reestablishing the American ability to accomplish the feat for the first time since the shuttle program ended.
For its Moon landing offer, SpaceX proposed its reusable Starship spacecraft, designed to carry large crews and cargo for deep space travel, and land upright both on Earth and other celestial bodies. Prototypes of the ship are being tested at the company’s facilities, although all four versions that have so far attempted test flights have exploded.
As part of the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon, NASA wants to use its Space Launch System to transport four astronauts aboard an Orion crew capsule, which will then dock with a lunar space station called the Gateway.
The Starship will be waiting to receive two crew members for the final leg of the journey to the surface of the Moon. The idea is for Gateway to be an intermediate station, but for the initial mission, Orion could dock directly to the Starship, Watson-Morgan said. The astronauts would then spend a week on the Moon before boarding the Starship to return to lunar orbit, and then boarding Orion back to Earth.
Separately, SpaceX has plans to combine the Starship spacecraft with its own super heavy-lift rocket, to make a combined spacecraft that will stand 120 meters tall and be the most powerful launch vehicle ever deployed.
Back to the moon
Humanity last set foot on the Moon in 1972, during the Apollo program. NASA wants to go back and establish a sustainable presence, with a lunar space station, to test new technologies that will pave the way for a manned mission to Mars.
In 2019, then-US Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, but that deadline is likely to be relaxed under the presidency of Joe Biden. Another change under the current government is its stated goal of placing the first person of color on the Moon under the Artemis program.