Nasa has chosen SpaceX to make the next-generation spacecraft which will return humans to the moon, further strengthening Elon Musk’s grip on the burgeoning public-private space industry. The $2.9bn contract to create the lunar lander that may spearhead the Artemis program, Nasa’s ambitious project to return to the moon for the First time since the ultimate Apollo mission in 1972, was announced on Friday.
“The Artemis lunar landing may be a key piece to our moon-to-Mars strategy,” Steve Jurczyk, acting Nasa administrator, told reporters. “Today may be a big success. This can be an improbable time to be involved in human exploration for all humanity.” Musk’s company is currently the sole operation with the potential of launching astronauts from US soil.
But NASA’s decision to travel with a sole contractor for its human landing system (HLS) raised eyebrows. Traditionally, the agency has preferred to stimulate competition and protect against setbacks by keeping a minimum of two contractors on the payroll. This time, partly for budgetary reasons, NASA chose to reject proposals by the Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper; and also the contractor Dynetics. All three bids were chosen for the preliminary stages of the HLS project in 2020.
“Congrats to SpaceX, but [I’m] honestly shocked Nasa goes with one provider here,” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser, said in a tweet. “Of course, SpaceX always acts as if it’s a relentless competition with itself. And it’s 100% delivered on its capability and price promise to date.” Dreier calculated that “if SpaceX pulls this off, the US will get a human-capable lunar landing system for 13% the worth of Apollo era hardware”.
The Artemis program also includes the Space Launch System, the foremost powerful rocket ever built, and therefore the Orion spacecraft that may ferry crews. The SpaceX bid features its Starship landing system, currently under development. NASA has said the Artemis program will land the First woman and also the person of color on the moon.
The Trump administration directed the agency to realize the goal by 2024 but the timeline slipped thanks to budget cuts. Joe Biden’s request to Congress, announced earlier this month, seeks $24.7 Billion for NASA, a rise of 6.3% on the previous year, including $6.9 Billion for Artemis. After the retirement of the spacecraft fleet in 2011, the US was unable to launch humans into space for nine years. Now, SpaceX continues to press ahead with its human spaceflight program. Since May 2020 it’s sent two crews to the International artificial satellite. A 3rd mission, Crew 2, is about to launch on 22 April.
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