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NASA has chosen SpaceX’s spaceship as a lander to take astronauts to the moon

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Surprising selectionLast year, NASA placed three separate group contracts to further develop its own lunar lander proposals: $ 135 million to SpaceX, $ 253 million to defense firm Dynetics (which worked with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $ 579 million to a team of four companies led by Blue Origin (in collaboration with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper).

SpaceX not only received the lowest monetary amount – its proposal received the worst technical and management ratings. Steve Jurczyk, Associate Administrator at NASA (now acting administrator), wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system is “particularly complex and also consists of complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested and certified to compensate for delays.” The uncertainties were only heightened by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record in meeting deadlines.

What has changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several large-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and a safe landing in March. (It also exploded a couple of times.) According to the Washington Post, NASA was, according to records, excited by Starship’s ability to move a ton of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $ 2.9 billion -Offer for the contract. that was far lower than its rivals.

“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in space history,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA program manager for the moon landing system. “We are confident that NASA is working with SpaceX.”

What this means: It’s a devastating blow to SpaceX’s rivals – especially Blue Origin. The company founded by Jeff Bezos had unveiled its Blue Moon Lander concept in 2019 and publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the best developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.

For SpaceX, this is a huge vote of confidence in Starship as a critical technological element for the next generation of space exploration. It takes less than a year for the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle to be certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts into space. And it seems to confirm that SpaceX is now NASA’s largest private partner, ousting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and further marginalizing newer firms like Blue Origin. There is at least one major hurdle, however: Starship has to launch a Super Heavy rocket – a design SpaceX has not yet flown.

For NASA, this means above all that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, as the lunar exploration program is touted as the successor to Apollo. Former President Donald Trump’s directive that NASA should bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024 was never actually actually implemented, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.

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Steven Gregory