SpaceX has been selected by NASA to create a spacecraft that will carry humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program ended in 1972.
At a press conference this afternoon, the agency revealed that SpaceX had secured the contract for the Artemis lunar lander. The company won the $2.9 billion contract over defense contractor Dynetics and Blue Origin (which partnered up with key aerospace players including Lockheed Martin). NASA was previously expected to choose two of the firms.
NASA prefers to hire numerous contractors for its major projects to encourage competition and offer a variety of choices in the event that one vendor fails to deliver on its promises. Last year, it chose all three for the first stage of the deal, but this year it has chosen to go all-in on SpaceX.
Artemis, which is the latest plan, calls for astronauts to launch on NASA‘s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, travel to lunar orbit in NASA’s Orion space capsule, and then move to SpaceX’s Starship rocket for the final descent to the earth.
The Artemis program
The Artemis program, announced in 2017 and named in 2019, aims to return American astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, including landing the first woman and person of color on the moon.
The program has also received support from the Biden administration. Although Trump’s team advocated for a crewed mission to the moon’s surface in 2024, Congress has not given the funding that NASA estimates is needed to meet that timetable.
NASA is reevaluating the earliest date it could send people on a lunar mission due to a lower budget than required and delays during the construction of the SLS rocket and other parts of the program.
Artemis I mission will be an uncrewed test flight of Orion and SLS that will fly in late 2021. Artemis II would follow, using the SLS and Orion spacecraft to carry a crew around the moon and back without landing, similar to the Apollo 8 flight in 1968. The trip to the moon’s surface will then be completed by Artemis III using SLS, Orion, and SpaceX’s Starship.
NASA’s SLS heavy-lift rocket and Orion deep-space spacecraft will carry astronauts a quarter-million miles to the moon. After that, Orion is supposed to dock with a Human Landing System (HLS), which is why NASA chose SpaceX’s Starship.
This spacecraft will stay in lunar orbit for up to a hundred days before landing the astronauts on the surface. To return to Earth, the crew will take Starship off the moon, move to the waiting Orion spacecraft, and travel back to Earth.
SpaceX is currently developing the Starship heavy-lift rocket. The entire rocket will be made up of two parts: a 230-foot-tall booster known as Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall upper stage known as Starship. (The booster and upper stage of the rocket are also referred to as the Starship.) In contrast to previous launch vehicles, the goal is to create a rocket that can both launch and land itself.
The Falcon 9 rocket, which NASA uses to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), has a booster stage capable of accomplishing this feat, allowing it to be reused.
During missions to the moon, the Super Heavy booster will help launch Starship off Earth and on its way to lunar orbit, where the upper part of the rocket will wait to ferry astronauts to the surface using its own engines.
SpaceX has launched four iterations of the Starship rocket on high-altitude flight tests since December 2020. Starship rockets have soared as far as 41,000 feet so far, but all of the experiments have exploded during landing attempts. NASA said that before sending people to the moon, SpaceX must conduct an uncrewed demonstration of a lunar landing.
NASA officials told reporters on April 16 that Starship will land American astronauts on the lunar surface no earlier than 2024. NASA stated that it was evaluating the Artemis timetable and that no firm commitments has been made.