SpaceX bags NASA’s Lunar Lander Contract Worth $2.9 Billion

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected SpaceX to receive $2.9 billion to build a lunar lander as part of the mission to send humans to the Moon by 2024, named Artemis, the agency announced today. As no other company in contention received money, it’s a major vote of confidence in SpaceX from NASA. The contract between both parties is expected to be signed on May 1.

Four astronauts will launch on NASA’s Space Launch System, aboard the Orion spacecraft and two people from there will then transfer to the lunar lander built by SpaceX. The mission will have them spend about a week exploring the moon and its surface, then get aboard the lander and head back to Orion. However, SpaceX will first have to do an uncrewed flight of the lander before any humans come aboard.

GIVING THE CONTRACT TO SPACEX ALONE IS A BIG BLOW TO BLUE ORIGIN

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The initial contract drawn up for SpaceX is for an uncrewed flight and a single crewed landing. NASA said it would begin talking with the industry about the follow-up program, which would involve subsequent landings details and contracts, next week.

SpaceX beat out two other major contenders for the project, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, working with a handful of other aerospace companies, and Dynetics, a defense contractor. Previously, NASA had rewarded all three contenders with $967 million combined to develop lunar lander prototypes.

It was expected that NASA would select two companies to receive contracts for the Artemis mission, the first Moon landing mission since the Apollo program. So giving the contract to SpaceX alone is a big blow to Blue Origin in particular — and its team, which included Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. For instance, in the commercial crew program, SpaceX and Boeing received the contracts. The redundancy gave NASA a cushion, in case one of the companies didn’t deliver.

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“THERE IS IMPORTANT WORK FOR US AHEAD, JUST NOT AT THE FUNDING LEVELS WE INITIALLY EXPECTED.”

“There is important work for us ahead, just not at the funding levels we initially expected,” Human Lander Selection program manager Lisa Watson Morgan wrote in her email. With only one partner, the number of people who work on the program will also be reduced and the program will get running quickly.

The SpaceX bid was Starship, the next-generation spacecraft being built in the company’s facilities at Boca Chica, Texas. It’s expected to be able to carry 100 tons of cargo along with a crew of astronauts. The aerospace manufacturer’s spacecraft, Starship, is supposed to use its main engines to lower itself to a hard surface, such as the Moon or Mars. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has successfully landed Starship once on March 3rd, though it blew up almost immediately afterward, along with another landing attempt, on March 30th, also ending in flames.

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“The human landing system is going to allow us to be able to access different parts of the lunar surface,” said Kathy Lauders, the associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a NASA livestream. “It also allows us to explore new technology and capabilities that will help us when we are trying to figure out our next round of technologies to be able to help us land on Mars or other planets out there.”

In November, the 18 astronauts who were part of the Artemis team and will land on the moon were introduced, including the first woman, as well as the first person of color. (So far, only white men have walked on the lunar surface.) 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget request includes $24.7 billion meant for NASA, and Bill Nelson, a former senator, has been nominated by the President as NASA chief.

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