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NASA Chooses SpaceX for Lunar Landing Vehicle

NASA announced that it has chosen SpaceX as the sole provider for the moon landing craft.

NASA announced on Friday that it chose SpaceX and its vehicle Starship as the moon landing vehicle in the Artemis Program . With this announcement, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it plans to return people to the Moon at the end of this decade.

About a year ago, NASA awarded the first study and pre-development contracts for lunar landers to a group that has proven its work on space, led by SpaceX, Dynetics and Blue Origin. SpaceX’s offer cost about half of Dynetics and a quarter of the amount purchased from Blue Origin. This price prompted NASA to choose SpaceX as the sole provider of landing services on Friday.

“We looked at what is best value for the government,” Kathy Lueders, head of the NASA human discovery program, said during a teleconference with reporters on Friday.

NASA said it will award $ 2.89 billion to SpaceX for the development of the Starship vehicle and for two flights. One of these missions will be a crewless flight test where the Starship lands and returns to the lunar surface. The second mission will be a crewed flight – the first of the Artemis program – and land on the Moon.

NASA officials said Starship offers a variety of benefits. It has a spacious cabin for astronauts, two airlocks, and enough payload to take multiple experiments to the Moon and return samples to Earth. In addition, NASA engineers praised the vehicle’s innovative design and future-proof technology that could one day be used on Mars.

Ultimately, selection criteria were based on a company’s technical competence, management, and cost. SpaceX scored well in all three. But budget seems to be the biggest factor. The space agency had difficulty securing funding from Congress for the lunar landing aspect of the program. NASA said it needed $ 3.3 billion in funding to meet its goal of landing people on the Moon by 2024. Congress only provided $ 850 million, and as a result, NASA acknowledged that 2024 is no longer a realistic target.

Making Artemis affordable

Under the direction of the Trump administration, NASA formally created the Artemis Program about two years ago to sustainably send people back to the Moon and set up a base there . The goal was to go beyond the flags and footprints of the Apollo Program and eventually get the knowledge needed to send humans to Mars. The Biden administration has endorsed this fundamental goal and is trying to update the Artemis Program with a more realistic timeline given the budget preferences of Congress.

Friday’s announcement is part of the process of making Artemis more affordable. SpaceX’s single-source award for the Human Lander System will certainly not be popular in Congress, where traditional space companies like Lockheed Martin and new entrants like Blue Origin have more established lobbying power. But it sends a clear message from NASA and the White House to budget writers in the House and Senate.

This award clearly says that NASA is serious about reaching the Moon with its funding. And if Congress were to fully fund the Human Landing System program, NASA could bring in a competitor. Of course it should ideally be competition. This approach has worked well with NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs. But NASA gets a much smaller fraction than it needs to run a Moon landing competition.

In addition to this development award, NASA said it will soon begin purchasing “recurring landing services” from the industry. This contract will be for operational missions on the lunar surface, and it is obvious that SpaceX will have a significant advantage in winning the award. However, if Congress provides more funding for the Human Landing System, there could be an opportunity here for the Dynetics or Blue Origin-led team to play a role in the human landing.

Self-financed Starship

SpaceX has largely self-financed the development of the massive Starship vehicle for about five years, with the goal of using it to someday place humans on Mars . Starship is a fully reusable top layer that will be launched on top of the Super Heavy rocket. SpaceX is working to test and develop both of these vehicles at its South Texas facility.

As part of the Artemis Program, SpaceX proposed launching a modified version of the Starship vehicle into lunar orbit. Soon, a NASA astronaut team would be launched inside an Orion spacecraft onto a Space Launch System rocket, both developed by NASA. Orion would meet the Starship in lunar orbit, dock to the vehicle and land on the surface. The Starship would then take off from the lunar surface and reconnect with Orion, and the crew would return to Earth in the smaller capsule.

What remains unspoken is the fact that SpaceX is planning to launch people from Earth with Starship. It doesn’t seem that hard to question the need for the much more costly Orion and Space Launch System rocket when the lunar crew can launch into low Earth orbit with the Starship and refuel from another Starship and then go back to the Moon. But NASA knows that Congress, which is heavily invested in Orion, the SLS rocket and its missions in all 50 states, will not support a program solely for SpaceX.

SpaceX’s selection was applauded by some industry officials on Friday. “The selection of SpaceX as the sole source developer of the Human Lander System is an indication of how far both the company and its relationship with NASA have advanced over the past decade,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy executive director, on time and added: SpaceX’s participation in Artemis will certainly increase public interest and hopefully enable us to get back to the Moon as soon as possible. ”

For years, space industry leaders like Garver have argued that NASA should increase its support for commercial space companies looking to reduce the costs of spaceflight. After all, SpaceX’s $ 2.9 billion bid for the entire Human Landing System is equivalent to what NASA spends each year on the development of the Space Launch System and related ground systems. Now the space agency seems to bravely embrace this future.

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