NASA has chosen Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to build a lander that will bring humans back to the moon this decade.
This vehicle will transport the next man and the first woman to the lunar surface as part of the space agency’s Artemis program.
Another goal of the program will be to land the first person of color on the moon.
The lander is based on SpaceX’s Starship, which is being tested at a site in South Texas.
SpaceX was competing with a joint bid from traditional aerospace giants and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Alabama-based Dynetics. The total value of the contract awarded to the Musk company is $ 2.89 billion.
“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first manned 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 exploration deep space, ”said Kathy Lueders, the organization’s head of human exploration.
“This crucial step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions further into the solar system, including Mars.”
The Artemis program, initiated under the Trump administration, had aimed for a return to the lunar surface in 2024. But a lack of funding for the landing system made this goal unattainable.
Elon Musk has been developing the design of the Starship for years. Resembling rockets from the heyday of science fiction, it’s a crucial part of the Contractor’s long-term plans to put humans on Mars.
For now, however, it will serve as a lander that will transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface.
With a spacious cabin and two airlocks, allowing astronauts to exit the craft for moon walks, it’s a far cry from the narrow and tinny Lunar Module (LM) that carried 12 men to the surface as part of the program. American Apollo between 1969 and 1972.
The new vehicle will be known as the Human Landing System (HLS).
In recent times, NASA has chosen more than one company when acquiring space transportation services, giving it options if one fails to deliver.
More of our reports on the Artemis program
But NASA only received $ 850 million of the $ 3.3 billion requested from Congress to build the lunar lander. In a statement, Ms Lueders said that “while the agency’s willingness to maintain a competitive environment remains at this stage of the HLS program,” its current budget prevents it from selecting two companies, as planned.
It is believed that cost was a major factor; SpaceX’s bid was the lowest of the three competitors “by far”.
Ms Lueders explained: “I have decided that it would be in the agency’s best interests to make an initial conditional selection of SpaceX.”
The decision caused a sensation in Congress. NASA is undergoing a power transition following the election of Joe Biden as president. It is headed by an interim administrator, and Mr Biden’s choice to head the agency – former senator and astronaut Bill Nelson – will appear during his confirmation hearing next week.
“I am disappointed that the interim leadership of NASA has decided to issue such an award before the arrival of a new permanent NASA administrator and deputy administrator,” Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson said, Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. .
“Today’s decision to award this award also comes despite the obvious need to recalculate NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2024.”
NASA targets the moon’s south polar region for the first landing with astronauts since 1972. This area contains abundant deposits of water ice, which could be turned into rocket fuel and breathable air to support a future base. lunar.
But landing here also presents challenges, as the angle of the sun casts long shadows that obscure the surface features as the craft descends ashore.
Engineers will have to deal with the problem by fine-tuning their plans for Artemis’ first landing.
SpaceX had been in a second round against the national team – made up of Blue Origin (founded by Bezos), Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper – and defense contractor Dynetics.
This marks another milestone for the 19-year-old company founded by Musk, which initially had to overcome widespread skepticism about its plans to cut the costs of spaceflight. SpaceX nearly ran out of money, but was kept alive by the award of a fortuitous contract from NASA in 2008.
Since then, it has achieved enormous success launching commercial satellites and winning a lucrative contract to transport people to the ISS.
The Starship vehicle is currently being tested at a facility in Boca Chica, South Texas. A number of unscrewed prototypes have already been launched at altitudes of 10 km or more, before being brought back down in an attempt to land them gently on the ground. However, the last test flights ended with the vehicles exploding, either nearby or on the mat after their return.
“This is an exciting time for NASA and in particular for the Artemis team,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for the human landing system at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
“During the Apollo program, we proved that it is possible to do what seems impossible: land humans on the moon. By taking a collaborative approach by working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will bring America’s astronauts back to the moon. surface once more, this time to explore new areas for longer periods. “
The Artemis program aims to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, including the establishment of a moon base.
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