February 28, 2024

Elon Musk’s private space company is developing a giant rocket called the Starship to one day take people to Mars.

But first it will drop NASA astronauts on the moon.

NASA announced on Friday that it has placed a $ 2.9 billion contract with SpaceX to use Starship to move astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface.

The contract expands NASA’s trend of relying on private companies to get people, cargo, and robotic researchers into space. But it’s also a triumph for Mr. Musk in the battle of space billionaires. One of the competitors for the NASA lunar contract was Blue Origin, created by Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon.

SpaceX now surpasses Blue Origin and other rocket builders, stressing that it has become NASA’s best known partner in its manned space program.

If NASA achieves its goal of landing the next astronauts on the moon – now promised by the Biden government to be the first woman and first colored person on the moon – they will likely travel in a SpaceX vehicle.

News of the award was previously reported in the Washington Post.

Last year NASA awarded contracts to three companies for initial design work on lands that could bring humans to the surface of the moon. In addition to SpaceX, NASA selected proposals from Dynetics, a defense company in Huntsville, Alabama, and Bezos’ Blue Origin, which had joined the so-called national team with several traditional aerospace companies: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

The award is for the first crewed landing only, and SpaceX must first perform an unmanned landing. NASA officials said Blue Origin, Dynetics, and other companies could bid on future lunar landing missions.

President Biden is sticking to the plans begun under President Donald J. Trump to send astronauts back to the moon. Although Mr Trump had promised to return by 2024, the schedule was not considered realistic after Congress failed to provide requested funding, and NASA is now re-evaluating the schedule.

NASA’s lunar program known as Artemis is expected to launch its first unscrewed voyage later this year or early next year using a powerful rocket called the Space Launch System to propel the Orion capsule that future astronauts will sit on on a journey to the Moon and back. The rocket’s booster phase passed an important ground test last month.

For the spacecraft that would land astronauts on the moon, NASA was expected to select two of the three companies to move forward and build their landers. This reflects the approach the space agency has taken in hiring companies to move cargo and now astronauts to the International Space Station. Two options offer competition to keep costs down and provide backup in case one of the systems experiences a setback.

By choosing just SpaceX, NASA officials seem to be saying they believe Mr. Musk’s company can deliver an ambitious spacecraft design that is far larger and more powerful than what NASA actually needs. Once Starship goes live, it begs questions about why NASA needs the Space Launch System in the first place.

Each launch of the Space Launch System is expected to cost more than $ 1 billion. Since Starship is fully reusable, its cost is far less expensive.

The Artemis plans currently see the astronauts launching into orbit on a Space Launch System rocket. The upper stage of the rocket consists of propelling the Orion capsule, in which the astronauts will sit, towards the moon.

In contrast to NASA’s Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s, the lander spacecraft is to be sent into lunar orbit separately. Orion is supposed to dock with the lander, which then goes to the surface.

But Starship will overshadow Orion in size, making the architecture resemble sailing a yacht across the Atlantic and then switching to a cruise ship for the short trip into port.

In principle, the spaceship can take astronauts from the earth to the moon without the complex choreography of docking.

A Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, bought a round-the-moon flight with Starship. This trip, which could take place as early as 2023, would only pass the moon and not land.

At its location on the southern tip of Texas, not far outside of Brownsville, SpaceX has launched a series of altitude tests on Starship prototypes to perfect how the spaceship would return to Earth. SpaceX has made great strides in maneuvering the belly flop to slow its fall, but testing so far has all exploded.

Mr Musk recently pledged that the spacecraft will be ready to fly humans into space by 2023, despite a proven record of delivering too promising and underpowering missile development plans.

Even so, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with its reusable booster stage has become the workhorse of American and international space travel. The company has twice brought astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA and is due to deploy a third crew there on Thursday.

Numerous private satellite operators have relied on the company to put their payloads into orbit. And another company, Astrobotic, announced this week that it had selected a larger SpaceX rocket, Falcon Heavy, to take a NASA rover called VIPER to the moon’s south pole for ice hunt for years to come.