NASA Selects SpaceX to Land Astronauts on Moon

NASA has accepted SpaceX’s proposal to develop the spacecraft that will land astronauts on the Moon. The lunar lander will be capable of carrying two astronauts to the Moon.

NASA’s Project Artemis includes the goals of landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. Plans for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) include launching four astronauts into transit to the Moon.  The SLS has often been criticized for cost overruns and delays and the rocket has only flown once in an uncrewed test. The system has often been dubbed the “Senate Launch System” by critics because it was invented by the U.S. Congress as part of a funding bill meant to provide jobs in the aerospace industry. Even so, NASA is still working on getting it off the ground even though SpaceX might reach the Moon sooner with missions like the privately funded DearMoon mission, which is slated to launch in 2023.

SpaceX’s lunar lander has officially been dubbed the human landing system (HLS) and will be capable of supporting the two astronauts on the Moon for up to a week at a time.

“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed demonstration mission to the surface of the Moon in the 21st century as the agency takes a step forward for women’s equality and long-term deep space exploration,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate.

The contact includes a fixed fee of $2.89 billion. SpaceX has also recently won a contract to launch the first components of the Lunar Gateway into lunar orbit. The Lunar Gateway will be capable of providing some logistical support for lunar landings.

SpaceX’s contracts with NASA also include agreements to resupply the International Space Station with the uncrewed Cargo Dragon and ferry astronauts to the space station with the Crew Dragon. The Crew-1 spacecraft, dubbed “Endeavour,” is currently docked to the International Space Station and has recently been moved to another port as part of preparations for the arrival of Crew-2, which is slated to launch on April 22. Crew-1 is expected to return to Earth in a classic NASA “splashdown” shortly after the arrival of Crew-2.

For the human landing system contract, SpaceX beat out competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics. SpaceX’s bid of $2.89 billion was reportedly far lower than the other proposals. The company may be banking on its ability to save on costs by reusing hardware as much as possible. Its lunar lander design looks like a pared-down version of the Starship rocket that is currently under development.

(And, yes, the prototypes do keep blowing up, much to the annoyance of regulators who have expressed concern about safety measures even though no one has been injured or killed in the explosions. Elon Musk thinks SpaceX’s engineers have the problem pinned down, though. The SN15 prototype has undergone several upgrades.)

Both SpaceX and NASA are confident that the contract will help get them on the road to Mars, though of course SpaceX’s ambitious timeline would have it sending Starship spacecraft to the Martian surface much sooner.

“[SpaceX] would maybe have a shot of sending or trying to send something to Mars in three years, but the window is four years away,” Elon Musk said at last October’s virtual Mars Society conference.

“This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the solar system, including Mars,” Kathy Lueders said of the new contract to have SpaceX produce the human landing system.

The award was made as part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) Appendix H Broad Agency Announcement (BAA). NASA also plans to implement a competitive procurement for sustainable crewed lunar surface transportation services that will provide human access to the lunar surface using the Lunar Gateway. If all goes as planned, crewed lunar flights backed by NASA will become a regular occurrence once the initial landing has been made and the Gateway becomes capable of supporting crews.