NASA announced April 16 that it had awarded a $2.89 billion contract to SpaceX for the development of a commercial human-rated lunar lander.
Awarded under the agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) initiative, the SpaceX human landing system (HLS) will ferry NASA astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back.
The SpaceX HLS contract includes at least one uncrewed demonstration mission and one crewed mission to the lunar surface.
In parallel with the SpaceX contract, NASA will implement what it has called “competitive procurement for sustainable crewed lunar surface transportation services”, which opens up room for additional commercial providers.
Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Kathy Lueders said that the decision to award SpaceX with an initial HLS contract came down to it being the best strategy based on budget availability.
In November 2020, a Senate appropriations bill reserved less than a third of the funding NASA had requested for its HLS program for the fiscal year 2021. A proposal from the Biden administration earlier this month earmarked 5% more for the agency’s human exploration program however, it has not yet outlined how much of that would be dedicated to the HLS program.
With funding likely to be well below what NASA would have prefered, the cost of each bid had a significant impact on the agency’s decision making.
According to a NASA report, the SpaceX bid was significantly lower than that of the Blue Origin-led National Team, which in turn was significantly lower than the Dynetics bid.
Despite the award being a pragmatic one based on the amount of funding dedicated to the program, the announcement received mixed reactions.
Chair of the House Science Committee Eddie Bernice Johnson criticised acting NASA leadership for making a decision before the arrival of a new permanent NASA administrator and deputy administrator.
“I am disappointed that the acting NASA leadership decided to make such a consequential award prior to the arrival of a new permanent NASA administrator and deputy administrator,” said Johnson. “The decision to make the award today comes despite the obvious need for a re-baselining of NASA’s lunar exploration program, which has no realistic chance of returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2024.”
NASA leadership were nonetheless upbeat stating that the award was a critical step towards landing the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon.
“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed 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 deep space exploration,” said Lueders. “This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the solar system, including Mars.”
The single crewed mission to the Moon included in the SpaceX HLS contract will see a crew of four launch aboard an Orion spacecraft atop an SLS rocket. The spacecraft will then rendezvous with a SpaceX Starship lunar lander in orbit around the Moon, likely docked to NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station.
Two of the crew, which will include the first woman to step foot on the Moon will then transfer to the Starship lunar lander for their final leg to the surface. The pair will remain on the lunar surface for approximately a week before returning to orbit.
Once reunited with their crewmates in lunar orbit, the four-person crew will transfer back to the Orion spacecraft and return to Earth.