NASA aims to return humans to the Moon with the Artemis Program and had hoped to do it by 2024. Now that timeline could slip due to challenges and delays in producing important hardware like the Space Launch System (SLS) and the spacesuit that is meant for use on the Moon. Now Elon Musk says that SpaceX could send people to the Moon before 2024.
Musk had previously said that Spacex could produce the spacesuit more easily and cheaply by doing it completely in-house rather than splitting it up between subcontractors. Its comments were made in response to a report by NASA’s Inspector General saying that the spacesuit being made for the Artemis Program was likely to run into delays and cost overruns from private contractors having too many fingers in the pie.
SpaceX has been given the go-ahead to continue developing its Starship-derived human landing system (HLS) for Artemis now that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected appeals by Blue Origin and Dynetics, both of which had competing proposals. NASA has already given SpaceX a $300 million initial payout for work on HLS.
The ruling seems to imply that the GAO was less than impressed with Blue Origin’s ability to meet NASA’s standards with its proposal. This includes a rejection of Blue Origin’s complaint that NASA left out requirements that should have been obvious to anyone with experience in crewed spaceflight, such as the ability for a crewed spacecraft to operate in the dark and include robust support for the health and safety of the crew.
NASA is currently considering sending future Artemis crews to an area in the lunar south pole that does not get much sunlight because the area is cold enough to support the presence of frozen water. A lunar day is equivalent to about 28 Earth days, which means a 14-day “nighttime” on the Moon. Any future prolonged lunar mission that includes crewed operations would have to function in dark, frigid conditions that could be hard on electronics and deadly to unprotected crews.
SpaceX’s proposal has shown that it can meet these requirements and also come in a couple of billion dollars cheaper than Blue Origin’s proposal. Although Blue Origin has offered to reduce the cost, the GAO backed up NASA’s claim that it was “implausible” that Blue Origin could drop the cost enough to be competitive with SpaceX without significantly changing its design.
SpaceX already plans to send people to the Moon with the dearMoon mission, a purely private mission that will carry eight people around the Moon as early as 2023. The mission’s backer, Yusaku Maezawa, initially floated the idea of including artists who could capture the experience in a variety of media. In an announcement in mid-July, dearMoon hinted that it is getting close to its final passenger selection. (Yes, Maezawa is the guy who floated the idea of a space-themed, “Bachelor”-like reality show, but he backed off after backlash.)
Could SpaceX actually land people on the Moon before NASA? Elon Musk has become known for repeatedly setting unreasonably ambitious timelines that later slipped. However, it would be difficult to rule out the possibility that he could land people on both the Moon and Mars before NASA does, considering that he already has the “head start” of becoming the first company to fly astronauts to the International Space Station in a 100% privately owned spacecraft.
SpaceX also has commitments from other private parties for crewed space missions, including Inspiration4, which is scheduled to launch next month and will be covered in near real-time in a five-part Netflix documentary. Axiom Space recently expanded its contract with SpaceX to send private crews to the International Space Station.