SpaceX Wins NASA Contract to Put Astronauts Back on the Moon

SpaceX Wins NASA Contract to Put Astronauts Back on the Moon

SpaceX has won a three-way contest to build a system to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the lunar surface. NASA earlier insisted it wanted to award contracts to two bidders to ensure at least one would be ready in time to meet a 2024 goal of putting astronauts back on the Moon, but lack of funding drove the agency to pick just one. For now, that is. The agency plans to open another competition soon for future lunar landing services that could provide opportunities for other companies.

The Trump Administration initiated the Artemis program to put “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024, the end of a Trump presidency if he won reelection.

He lost, but President Biden has embraced the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon. The time frame is indeterminate, with NASA officials saying today they will get there as soon as they can safely do so. Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk insisted they “have a shot” at 2024, but will only go when they are ready. The contract with SpaceX requires an uncrewed test flight prior to putting astronauts on board.

The 2024 deadline is widely viewed with skepticism for budgetary and technical reasons. Reacting to today’s announcement, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that oversees NASA, expressed “disappointment” that such a “consequential award” would be made before new NASA leadership is in place and there is “no realistic chance of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024.”

HLS is one of four elements NASA plans to use to get astronauts back to the lunar surface. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft will get them to lunar orbit where they will transfer to a small “Gateway” space station and then board Human Landing Systems (HLS) to get down to and back from the surface.

Last year, SpaceX, Dynetics, and a National Team composed of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper won 10-month contracts to refine their HLS designs: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to Dynetics and $579 million to the Blue Origin team.

NASA planned to choose the “Option A” contract winner or winners in February to continue work, but extended the date until the end of April as it evaluated its options after Congress provided only 25 percent of the requested funding for HLS in FY2021, $850 million instead of $3.4 billion.

NASA estimated last year that HLS will cost $16 billion over 5 years.

Instead of waiting until the end of April, the announcement was suddenly made today. Just after 1:00 pm ET, Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk informed reporters covering the arrival of the Crew-2 crew at Kennedy Space Center that a media teleconference about HLS would be held at 4:00 pm ET.

The four-person crew is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket on April 22.

Jurczyk did not say who won the HLS contract at that moment, but reporters soon learned it was SpaceX.

The firm fixed-price contract is for $2.89 billion.

NASA is procuring HLS as a Public-Private Partnership (PPPs), the same way it procured Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner, the two “commercial crew” systems to ferry crews to and from ISS.  Next week’s launch is the third for Crew Dragon.  Starliner is still in testing.

Under the PPPs, both NASA and the company pay for development of a system, but the company retains ownership and can use it for other customers. NASA simply purchases services.

Prior to commercial crew, NASA used PPPs for “commercial cargo” systems to resupply ISS. Space X also won one of those contracts and has been sending cargo to ISS since 2012. Orbital Sciences (later acquired by Northrop Grumman) and Sierra Nevada Corporation also have commercial cargo contracts.

The success of commercial cargo and commercial crew led NASA to embrace the PPP acquisition model for other programs, including HLS, but it consistently emphasizes the need to have at least two contractors/partners. That is to guard against one of them failing or deciding to withdraw as well as to ensure price competition as the years go by.

In this case, NASA is emphasizing that today’s award is just a first step. Other companies will be able to compete to provide HLS services in a subsequent acquisition.  Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and the Source Selection Authority for this contract, said in the Source Selection Statement this is “by no means the last step.”

This Option A selection represents a critical step, but is by no means the last step, in NASA’s investment in and facilitation of lunar transportation service providers. With this award and NASA’s forward efforts for the acquisition of long-term recurring human lunar landing services, NASA is leading a sustainable return to the Moon, and we are doing it with our commercial and international partners to lead innovation and expand our knowledge for future lunar missions, looking towards Mars.  — Kathy Lueders

SpaceX bid its Starship design for HLS. Starship is the second stage of Elon Musk’s enormous two-stage vehicle to take people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The first stage, Super Heavy, is still in design, but Starship prototypes are being tested at the company’s “Starbase” facility at Boca Chica, TX.

Artist’s illustration of SpaceX’s Starship during launch as it separates from the Super Heavy booster (previously called BFR). Credit: SpaceX

Like other SpaceX vehicles, Starship will be reusable. SpaceX is testing the prototypes to demonstrate they can lift off, conduct in-flight maneuvers, and land. Four tests of three-engine prototypes since December have ended in spectacular fireballs upon landing.  Another test of a modified design could come as early as next week.

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. Credit: SpaceX



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