SpaceX, Blue Origin awarded NASA contracts for upcoming Moon mission

Dynetics lander artwork

Nasa has awarded nearly US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in contracts to three space companies, including those owned by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, to develop lunar landers as the United States seeks to send human beings to the Moon again.

Blue Origin received a $579 million contract.

Boeing Co, a NASA contractor and one of the companies that bid for this contract, was not selected. While only one company will carry the first woman and next man to the lunar surface, all three will participate over the long haul, officials noted.

"This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system, and now we have companies on contract to do the work for the Artemis program", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

"NASA's Artemis program will be the next major milestone in the history of human space flight, and we're honored to be a part of it", said Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin.

A fast-track approach has been applied to the earlier announced Lunar Gateway project Artemis, with the U.S. seeking to complete its Trump-lauded landing to the Moon by 2024, four years ahead of schedule.

The selected companies have come up with varying proposals: while Blue Origin suggests building a three-stage lander that would leave its landing engines on the surface of the Moon to lighten the load when the time comes to return to Earth, SpaceX wants to build the new model based on its universal "Starship" spacecraft, which it says could also be used for Mars missions.

Starship on Moon
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While a stop at the Moon is decidedly one-way and requires a bit of a one-off Starship variant, what SpaceX has really done is found a way to get NASA to help fund the development of its fully-reusable next-generation launch system.

Musk's SpaceX, which is on the cusp of launching its first manned mission for NASA next month, will develop its Starship landing system to send people and up to 100 pounds of cargo to the moon.

According to Lisa Watson-Morgan, the human landing system program manager at Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this design features a "unique, low-slung crew module, putting the crew very close to the lunar surface for transfer and access". It too will launch on ULA's launch system.

"Lockheed Martin is honored to be partnered with Blue Origin and this National Team as we begin a moment in history that the world will point to for generations", said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president, Lockheed Martin Space. That gives NASA three options that could compete against each other as NASA scrambles to meet an ambitious White House mandate to put humans at the Moon by 2024.

As NASA gets set to return to the moon by 2024, it's going to rely on some of tech's heavyweights to get there.

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