After a heated competition, NASA chose a SpaceX rocket to land its astronauts on the Moon for the first time in 45 years. A series of concept images may reveal why the Elon Musk outfit won the high-profile contract.
On Friday, April 16, the agency announced that it had awarded Elon Musk’s firm a $2.89 billion contract to continue developing the first commercial lunar lander. The firm’s proposal, outlined last year, uses the fully-reusable Starship rocket currently under development at SpaceX’s Texas facility. The ship will be used to transport two astronauts to the surface of the Moon.
“NASA rules!” Musk wrote in response to the news on his Twitter page. “We are honored to be part of the NASA Artemis team.”
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NASA picks Starship
The news is a big endorsement of SpaceX’s ambitious plans for Starship. The rocket’s predecessor, known as BFR, was first outlined by Musk at a September 2017 conference. Starship is designed to be a fully reusable rocket, capable of sending over 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time, with the ability to replace all of SpaceX’s existing rockets.
NASA has chosen the rocket to work as a lunar lander on its missions. The agency will launch four astronauts using an Orion spacecraft launched into space by the Space Launch System rocket. The capsule will travel for several days before reaching a lunar orbit.
Once it reaches the lunar orbit, the capsule will rendezvous with SpaceX’s Starship to enable two astronauts to transfer between the ships. The lucky pair will spend around one week on the Moon’s surface before boarding the lander and returning to the Orion spacecraft.
“By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for HLS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement.
SpaceX’s crewed Moon mission
The decision came one year after NASA first selected three companies to develop human landers to send astronauts to the Moon. Alongside SpaceX, NASA also chose Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin and Alabama-based Dynetics.
SpaceX’s proposal, outlined at the time, detailed a lunar variant of the Starship complete with NASA logos emblazoned on the cone. The proposal highlighted a “spacious cabin” for the astronauts and two airlocks for exploring the Moon.
In June 2020, Musk also explained that moon-bound ships would use new legs with a wider stance for landing on the rocky surface. It would also drop extras like heatshields and flaps, less important for missions to the Moon, to increase the amount of payload the ship can carry to the surface.
The newer concept images stand in stark contrast to an earlier one shown in November 2019, which show a more complex Starship with the aforementioned flaps:
A version of the Starship with the NASA logo was spotted at the Texas facility in October 2020:
How does the SpaceX Moon mission lunar lander work?
The setup would use multiple Starships to complete the mission. A Starship designed to store propellant will stay in low-Earth orbit, where it will provide extra fuel for Starships to complete their journey. The ship that will transport humans to the Moon’s surface will launch from Earth, refuel using the propellant-storing Starship, and continue its journey to lunar orbit.
Starship cislunar and interplanetary missions will use the Super Heavy booster to provide the necessary power to leave Earth’s gravity.
Blue Origin’s rival three-stage Integrated Lander Vehicle concept also included work from other industry giants. Lockheed Martin would build the vehicle’s crew cabin, Northrop Grumman would provide tools necessary to transfer astronauts during docking, and Draper would build navigation and avionics systems.
NASA had the option to choose two designs for the 2024 mission but has instead decided to fully commit to SpaceX’s proposal.
While the Starship will be used for transporting humans between the Moon’s surface and lunar orbit, SpaceX has much bigger goals in mind. It plans to develop the ship further to send the first humans to Mars. Its use of liquid oxygen and methane as a fuel means astronauts could visit Mars, refuel using the planet’s resources, and either return home or venture out further.
SpaceX has also produced concept art of a Starship arriving at a potential future lunar base:
With Mars on the horizon, the Moon may be just the beginning.
- November 2018 — BFR, first announced in September 2017, gets renamed to Starship.
- December 2018 — Musk confirms the new ship has switched to stainless steel.
- January 2019 — Shortened “Starhopper” prototype unveiled and Musk explains the switch to steel.
- February 2019 — Raptor engine beats a long-standing rocket record.
- April 2019 — Starhopper completes a tethered “hop.”
- July 2019 — Starhopper launches 20 meters (67 feet).
- August 2019 — Starhopper launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- September 2019 — Starship Mk.1 full-size prototype unveiled.
- May 2020 — Starship SN4 full-size prototype completes a static test fire.
- August 2020 — SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- October 2020 — SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire.
- December 2020 — SN8 launches 12.5 kilometers (41,000 feet).
- February 2021 — SN9 launches 10 kilometers (32,800 feet).
- March 2021 — SN10 and SN11 launch to 10 kilometers (32,800 feet).
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