Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to bring America’s astronauts back to the moon’s surface, beating rival tech billionaire Jeff Bezos at one of the biggest prizes in the commercial space race.
NASA on Friday named SpaceX as the sole contractor to build its next lunar lander and perform a single demonstration visit to the moon, potentially as early as 2024.
SpaceX offered to build and operate its lander for $ 2.9 billion, which was “significantly” lower than a competing Blue Origin bid from Bezos, according to a NASA document obtained by the Washington Post. A third company, Dynetics, had submitted an even higher offer.
The selection of a single contractor breaks with NASA’s recent practice of choosing two rival projects for the most important elements of its space program, and reflects the heavy budget pressure the agency is under as it tries to return to the Moon for the first time. since 1972.
“We awarded the contract to SpaceX given what we believe will be realistic budgets in the coming years,” said Mark Kirasich, a NASA official.
The choice of SpaceX threatens to widen the gap with other commercial space concerns and leaves NASA increasingly dependent on Musk’s private space company. In addition to pioneering a new era of fixed-cost commercial space programs for NASA, SpaceX was the first to transport cargo to the International Space Station and last year brought human spaceflight back to the American soil for the first time since 2011, when he took astronauts from NASA. to the ISS.
NASA officials said they are launching a review on how to maintain competitiveness in the development of human landers, including a series of consultations with the rest of the commercial space industry. The talks were designed to lead to a “lasting” series of visits to the Moon, following SpaceX’s unique demonstration landing, they said.
Bezos had sought to align with some of the traditional powers of the US space industry, facing a plan to build a lunar lander alongside Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
SpaceX will use its Starship, under development, for the demonstration lunar landing. Despite the company’s plans to eventually use the craft for a full trip between Earth and Mars, its role in the landing announced on Friday will only be to bring two astronauts down from orbit around the Moon to the surface before send them back.
The mission is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will use the giant SLS rocket developed by Boeing, as well as Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft, to fly astronauts to and from a “gateway” in lunar orbit. Despite Starship’s potential to replace these two programs, Kirasich said NASA had “no plans to change our architecture” and stick to its existing plans to reach the moon.
SpaceX has suffered a number of violent crashes this year in its early efforts to prove it can safely land the Starship. Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander, said of the issues: “Since we have areas to deal with, we will resolve them. But for now, everything looks good.