SpaceX Wins $1 Billion NASA Contract To Let Astronauts Live On Moon

Ramish Zafar
SpaceX Starship SN15 prototype for the Starship launch vehicle platform which is at the center of the company's goal of making humanity an interplanetary species by conducting Martian missions. Image: SpaceX/YouTube

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Within hours of the liftoff of the Space Launch System (SLS) Moon rocket, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that it has decided to award another lunar landing contract to SpaceX. SpaceX is currently the only company that NASA has contracted to land astronauts on the Moon, with the company's Starship lunar lander tasked with the mission to take the astronauts from the Orion spacecraft to the Moon. NASA's Artemis mission will kick off in less than an hour, with the Artemis 1 mission testing the SLS and the Orion spacecraft. It will place Orion in a Moon orbit, where several of the spaceship's systems will be tested before it makes its way back to Earth.

SpaceX's Starship Wins NASA Contract To Develop Sustainable Lunar Presence

NASA's plans to land astronauts on the Moon come under the agency's Human Landing System (HLS) program, which commenced after SpaceX was awarded a massive $2.9 billion last year to develop its Starship lunar lander. The lander is part of SpaceX's Starship next generation rocket which is currently being developed in Texas and is central to the company's plans to launch its second generation Starlink internet satellites and take cargo and crew to Mars.

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The award last year came under Option A of the HLS program, and today's announcement follows it up with Option B. NASA had announced earlier this year that it had decided to award SpaceX the Option B award, but the agency had not confirmed the decision back then.

Now, NASA confirmed hours before the highly anticipated Artemis 1 mission that the Option B award is official, and it will see SpaceX receive a cool $1.15 billion. This award extends the Option A award, which is intended at allowing SpaceX to demonstrate that Starship can land on the Moon. Option A will see SpaceX conduct two missions; the first of these will be a demonstration mission planned for 2024 while the second, should the first be successful, will land humans on the Moon in 2025.

NASA's proposed concept of operations for the SpaceX Starship lunar lander according to a presentation made by Kent Chojnacki, Manager, Systems Engineering & Integration (SE&I) Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Option B adds on to Option A, and it will see SpaceX make efforts towards sustaining NASA's presence on the Moon. The space agency has got big plans for the Artemis program, through which it aims to establish a long term presence on the Moon. Option B is critical to these efforts, and this portion of the HLS contract requires the firm awarded the contract to increase the payload transport capability from the lunar Gateway space station, carry out longer operations during daylight, increase the time that astronauts can spend outside the spaceship, be able to dock autonomously with the Gateway and more.

The Gateway is NASA's planned lunar space station, which will eventually serve as the transportation medium for the astronauts and evaluate what are the effects of operating far away from Earth on the human body.

SpaceX's planned operations for the Artemis program are unprecedented, and they will see the company conduct several launches first to create a propellant depot in Earth orbit. Once the depot is full of fuel, the lunar Starship without the crew will launch and refill itself. Following this, it will make its way to the Moon, and while this is happening, the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft will launch with the crew. Starship will be waiting for the crew close to the Moon, and then it will connect with Orion to take over the next part of their lunar journey

The Option B award will also require SpaceX to develop the capability of its spacecraft to dock with the Gateway. The later stage of the Artemis program will involve Orion docking with Gateway to transfer the crew to the space station before they board Starship to land on the Moon.

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