NASA has picked SpaceX to put its astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972.
The agency announced the partnership on Friday — a new $2.9 billion contract.
To accomplish this goal, NASA will work with SpaceX to turn its Starship mega-spaceship into the most advanced lunar lander in history — and the first fully reusable one. NASA officials say Starship could land two astronauts on the moon as soon as 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.
Through Artemis, NASA eventually aims to establish a permanent presence on the moon. The agency’s vision includes lunar habitats and a moon-orbiting space station. After that, it hopes to expand similar operations to Mars.
“We won’t stop at the moon. NASA’s long-term goal has always been to send humans to Mars, which is rich in discovery. And the moon is a natural stepping stone to getting us there,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said during a briefing on Friday.
That’s a goal NASA shares with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. In addition to carrying astronauts to the moon, Musk has said that he plans to build 1,000 Starships in order to fly people and cargo to Mars and establish a settlement there.
Musk responded to Friday’s announcement with an emoji-filled tweet saying simply: “NASA Rules!!”
SpaceX beat out two competitors for the contract: Blue Origin, founded by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos, and defense contractor Dynetics. NASA was expected to choose two of the three for the new landing-system contract, but it settled on just SpaceX.
SpaceX’s $2.9 billion bid was much lower than the prices its competitors offered, according to NASA’s selection statement. The document notes that SpaceX plans to “self-fund and assume financial risk for over half of the development and test activities,” since the company wants to use Starship for its own commercial activities as well.
The first moon landing in 50 years
SpaceX’s SN8 Starship prototype attempts to land at the company’s development facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on December 9, 2020.
NASA’s contract calls for SpaceX to conduct a full, uncrewed test flight before Starship carries any astronauts. For this demonstration, Starship would launch toward the moon using its 23-story Super Heavy booster — which SpaceX is still developing. The uncrewed Starship would then have to prove that it can descend to the lunar surface using its Raptor engines to control the landing. It’s not yet clear whether the lander will then lift back off to reenter lunar orbit or return to Earth.
If that goes well, NASA plans to conduct a crewed demonstration mission in which another Starship would land two astronauts on the moon. One of them would be the first woman to reach the lunar surface. NASA has pledged to send an astronaut of color on a future Artemis mission.
For that crewed demonstration mission, NASA plans to launch its own mega-rocket — the Space Launch System — towards the moon, with an astronaut crew tucked into the Orion spaceship atop it.
An artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System rocket lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Then once in lunar orbit, the Starship and Orion would rendezvous so that two of the astronauts could move to the SpaceX vehicle. That moon-lander version of Starship will feature “a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks,” NASA said in a statement on Friday.
After landing, the plan calls for the astronaut pair to spend a week exploring the lunar surface before Starship launches them back to Orion, where their colleagues would be waiting to return to Earth.
Starship hasn’t landed yet without exploding
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.
SpaceX has been launching Starship prototypes from its rocket-testing facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, since last year. Four prototypes have flown to high altitudes — at least 6 miles above the ground — but they’ve all exploded or fallen apart upon their return to Earth.
The prototypes have, however, successfully demonstrated that the vehicle can fly and control its belly-flop fall back to Earth using four wing flaps.
The company hopes to nail the landing and get Starship to orbit by the end of the year. It’s an ambitious timeline, especially since the company will likely have to conduct an environmental review in order to get an orbital-launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“NASA is providing insight throughout this development and is ensuring that this system will be safe for our astronauts,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of the agency’s Human Landing System program, said in Friday’s briefing.
“We are confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX to help us achieve the Artemis mission, and look forward to continuing our work toward landing astronauts on the moon to prepare for the next giant leap towards Mars,” she added.