NASA entrusts SpaceX, Starship with Artemis Moon landings
In a history-making announcement Friday April 16, NASA announced that it had chosen SpaceX to develop the first lunar lander to return humans to the surface of the Moon since the Apollo program ended nearly 50 years ago in 1972.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX trumped Jeff Bezos’s “National Team” (a collaboration of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper) and Leidos-owned Dynetics for the contract award valued at $2.89 Billion, covering the cost of lander development and a demonstration flight. It represents NASA’s “Option A” under its Human Landing Systems (HLS) program, itself a key component of the overall Artemis Program to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.
NASA selected the three companies last year to begin development of their respective lander concepts with $967 million in awards and 10 month contracts in order to preserve competition in the program. SpaceX had bid a Lunar-specialized version of its reusable Starship spacecraft currently under development in Boca Chica, South Texas, while Blue Origin’s and Dynetics’ concepts more closely resembled the multi-staged landers of the Apollo-Era. The Lunar Starship would refuel in Low Earth Orbit before continuing on to the moon to rendezvous with an SLS-launched Orion crew to ferry them to the lunar surface.
NASA was expected to select 2 of those 3 companies in its established practice of ensuring competition and redundancy of options for their major programs, examples of which include ISS cargo resupply missions being serviced by Falcon 9s and Antares rockets, while ISS crew missions are handled by the Falcon 9 Dragon system and the soon to be operational Atlas 5 and Boeing Starliner system.
However, in one of the biggest NASA contracting surprises in recent memory, NASA selected SpaceX and only SpaceX to proceed with the Option A phase of the program. A clear-cut lack of congressional funding appeared to force NASA to take this route. The official source selection statement from NASA stated that initially the agency’s fiscal year budget did not support even one Option A award, and a revision of the milestone payment schedule was required with the company that exhibited the highest technical and management competencies and lowest initially proposed price – SpaceX.
The source selection statement from NASA also clarified that SpaceX’s bid was far below that of Blue Origin’s and even further below that of Dynetics’. SpaceX was conditionally selected on April 2, and the decision was made official after SpaceX submitted revised proposals on April 7 according to the statement.
More than just price considerations, the award also represents the biggest placement of trust in SpaceX yet by NASA, and certainly the biggest since the agency selected SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to return human spaceflight capabilities to American soil from a 9-year drought following the end of the Shuttle Program. Landing human crews on the moon is one of the most complex and delicate practices in spaceflight, and relying on one sole solution for this goal in the Artemis program represents a significant risk should the Starship program encounter any significant delays or setbacks. To take that risk with SpaceX shows that the relationship with NASA and Elon Musk’s pioneering rocket company is stronger than ever.
Development and testing of the Starship spacecraft design continues at the Boca Chica, Texas SpaceX testing ground, dubbed Starbase. Most recently observed was the movement and initial preparation of three Raptor engines for use with Starship prototype serial number (SN) 15, or SN15. Updates pertaining to upcoming test flights, TFRs, NOTAMs and road closures will be reported and filed as they occur.
Nicholas D'Alessandro was born and raised in Southwest Florida. The seeds of his interest in Space Exploration were planted when the Shuttle's sonic boom upon re-entry would reverberate through his childhood home even across the state; the knowledge that a real life spacecraft was passing overhead and could have that effect was fascinating to him. A middle school field trip to the Kennedy Space Center cemented that fascination, and with an additional interest in the bleeding edge of automotive technology and Teslas, it was the story of Elon Musk's path to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX that finally led Nicholas to move to the Space Coast and, after joining Spaceflight Insider in 2020, begin documenting the dawning era of commercial spaceflight.