NASA announced Friday it would partner with SpaceX as its sole contractor for a human landing system for its Artemis missions to return humans to the moon.
The Starship lander was one of three teams vying for the contract that aims to put the first woman as part of a two-person team on the Artemis III mission later this decade. The NASA contract is a fixed-price award for $2.89 billion under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program.
“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed demonstration mission to the surface of the moon in the 21st century as the agency takes a step forward for women’s equality and long-term deep space exploration,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate. “This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the solar system, including Mars.”
SpaceX has been proving out its Starship design for its own plans at its Boca Chica, Texas facility in a series of prototype launches. It’s still going through 10km test flights, all of which have ended with the prototype exploding either on landing, or shortly thereafter.
“So now we’ve selected our partner and for the next phase going forward, we have to make sure that the testing occurs,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, Program Manager of NASA’s Human Landing System. “Because we’re not going to launch humans until we have a successful test. So we will be working to make sure that design and everything we have going forward so far is ready to go.”
The SpaceX proposal includes an in-space propellant transfer demonstration and an uncrewed test landing.
SpaceX beats out a team led by Blue Origin using a version of that company’s planned Blue Moon lander as well as a lander designed by the company Dynetics. They had been working with NASA on initial designs using a $967 million contract that went into motion nearly a year ago.
Company founder Elon Musk took to Twitter to express his approval.
“NASA Rules!!” reads a tweet embellished with rocket, heart and shooting star emojis.
The SpaceX Starship spacecraft for these NASA missions will launch without humans from Kennedy Space Center on the in-development Super Heavy booster. Starship’s design allows it to land on the lunar surface in the same manner that its Falcon 9 rocket first stages return to Earth in an upright position utilizing controlled reverse-thrust descents.
The Artemis missions will use NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule to take off from KSC and enter lunar orbit. That along with the Gateway space station are part of NASA’s long-term plans to send humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972 and eventually to be able to explore farther destinations including Mars.
While four astronauts will fly in the Artemis III Orion capsule, only two will transfer to the human landing system (HLS) for the final descent to the lunar surface, where they will spend about a week exploring the moon before getting back on board the HLS to return to their crewmates in the Orion capsule and then head back to Earth.
The HLS version of Starship will features a large cabin and two airlocks. The Starship design in general is SpaceX’s next-generation space vehicle, expected to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets in use today, and become both a suborbital point-to-point flight option for trips around Earth as well as the vehicle to transport people and supplies to the moon and Mars.
NASA is also pursuing a competitive contract for continued lunar transport after the initial crewed demonstration mission of Starship. That technically open to both the Blue Origin and Dynetics teams that lost on on this initial contract, as well as others that weren’t part of the final three.
“All of us here at NASA were impressed with all of our base-period partners, their unique and innovative solutions to meet our goals,” said Mark Kirasich, Deputy Associate Administrator for Advanced Exploration Systems. “Our hope is that we’ll see all three of these companies and other companies who weren’t in the base period providing transportation to the moon, increasing opportunities for exploration and stimulating a lunar-based economy.”
Artemis I will be an uncrewed mission to the moon, but actually traveling farther from Earth than any ship ever built for humans has ever flown before, about 280,000 miles away. NASA’s SLS schedule still has Artemis I launching as early as November with Artemis II, a crewed mission around the moon without landing, by 2023 and then Artemis III in 2024. Those targets, though, were part of the Trump administration’s push and could change under the new Biden administration.
“This is an exciting time for NASA and especially the Artemis team,” said Watson-Morgan. “During the Apollo program, we proved that it is possible to do the seemingly impossible: land humans on the moon. By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time.”©2021 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.