Friday, April 16, 2021

NASA Selects SpaceX As Sole Provider for Manned Lunar Lander

Just under a year ago, last April 30th, NASA selected three contractors to begin initial development of lunar landing systems that will take astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.  The three teams and their contracts were the Blue Origin "National Team" of big names in aerospace with a $579 million dollar contract, Dynetics, a defense contractor with a $253 million contract and SpaceX with a $135 million contract.  That amount is 23% of the Blue Origin team and 53% of the Dynetics contract, so smaller by far than the competitors. 

Today NASA announced that SpaceX is the sole winner of the next phase contract to provide a lunar lander to the Artemis program.  That lander will be a variant of the Starship that we've been watching go through development for over a year.
"We looked at what’s the best value to the government," said Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA, during a teleconference with reporters on Friday.

NASA said it will award SpaceX $2.89 billion for development of the Starship vehicle and two flights. One of these missions will be an uncrewed flight test of Starship down to the lunar surface and back. The second mission will be a crewed flight—the first one of the Artemis program—down to the Moon.
NASA pointed out several advantages of the Starship; a spacious cabin for astronauts, two airlocks, and ample payload capability to bring large numbers of experiments to the Moon and return samples to Earth.  They also liked innovative design and the fact that the base Starship is being designed to land on Mars, something also in NASA's long range plans.

I suspect that they also liked that SpaceX has plunged ahead on development of the Starship out of their own pockets.  Something about "putting your money where your mouth is" as a sign of commitment.

The news article on Ars Technica (second link) points out something that had gotten past me in the news.
For the current fiscal year, NASA said it needed $3.3 billion in funding to meet the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024. Congress provided just $850 million, and as a result, NASA acknowledged that 2024 was no longer a realistic target.

A SpaceX montage from my February post reporting that SpaceX had prototyped the elevator shown on the right. You'll note the Starship on the right isn't painted and has fins - more like SN15 than the painted ship on the left.

The big, fat elephant in the room is that current plans are for NASA to launch astronauts in an Orion capsule on the Space Launch System, but SpaceX has openly talked about launching astronauts to the moon on a Starship lifted by the Heavy booster.  The mission plan is to launch them to low Earth orbit, refuel from another Starship, then go to the moon.  Why couldn't NASA do that?  If NASA is strapped for cash, canceling the SLS seems like low hanging fruit.  It's interesting that NASA is studying the program's affordability and whether or not they should keep funding it.

Congratulations to SpaceX, who coincidentally just ended an effort to raise more funding, having raised $1.16 billion.


  1. WOW!!! But the National Team presented an awful kludged together mess that would be so complex that it would be prone to failure. Dynetics was just not a big enough name. SpaceX produces. Yes they have had 4 failures in trying to make a fully successful landing of a Starship. However, every flight has developed a lot of data. I am excited to see if SpaceX rolls out some good info on the Moon lander. And I agree that they should use it to transport crew from LEO to Lunar orbit. I know, let the SpaceX private transfer crew stay at the Lunar Gateway while the NASA astronauts make the Moon landing.

  2. I read today that NASA has selected the University of Arizona (home of Steward Observatory) to lead the Aspera mission. Aspera is to study gas nebula using ultraviolet sensing telescopes. The project is to launch its first satellite in 2024.

    It is planned to orbit 465 miles above Earth at what they are calling the 'terminator', which is the demarcation between day and night. I think that would be some mean feat in orbital science to get a satellite half the size of a refrigerator to hold that position.

    The U of AZ is seeking a private company to build the satellite to University-supplied specifications. Carlos Vargas, age 30, post-doc researcher is principal team leader.


    1. Interesting. I'll have to try to find out why they need the satellite to be at Earth's terminator if they're looking outward (at various nebulae) and not downward.

      I visited U of A to see the mirror lab where they were spin casting enormous lightweight mirrors for major observatories. Pretty sure it was summer of '90.

  3. Ha! Suck it, Bezos!

    Ya know? The more I think about it, the more I'd prefer to fund the SLS than send a dime overseas as part of the bloated 'Stimulus' bills.


    So how soon before ULA finds another supplier for engines for the Vulcan? Hmmm... Still wondering about the purchase of Aerojet Rockedyne by LockMart.

    But, yeah, love to be a fly on the wall at the next 'evil bazillionaires' club' when Musk dunks on Dr. Evil, I mean Bezos.

    Totally cool. Was wondering about the payload capacity of the Blue Origin lander vs Starship. Seems NASA also had questions. And more questions.

  4. Bezos needs a white cat and a monocle. I realize that comment is off topic, but at the same time, on-topic in an abstract sense. Blue Origin hasn't done much with what it has. Bezos hired the wrong team.

    1. I see the on-topic aspect more than the off-topic.

      My take is that it's not so much hiring the wrong team, but the wrong guy in the top chair.

      I don't know how much Musk has to do with the day to day engineering at Tesla or Neuralink (his other venture), but he seems to hire people to be the CEO and run the business aspects of the companies while he stays in the engineering side and directs the technical people.

      My perception of Bezos is he's not a technical guy, but more of the paper pusher kind.

  5. This is fantastic news. NASA had planned to pick two and let them battle it out. Obviously, from NASA's perspective this week, SpaceX was the only choice. Had they asked me a year ago, I could have saved them billions.

    Bezos just can't do the fast-failure mode of trial, error and retry that Musk champions and what is necessary to compete. I guess I'll have to go on waiting for someone to challenge one of Musk's ventures...

    1. I think NASA had intended to keep the best two out of three, in the believe that competition is better, but the extreme shortfall of funding ($850 million out of $3.3 billion requested) forced them to go to one supplier.

  6. To drag the past-that-might-have-been into the future, Space-x seems like just the very outfit to turn a slightly used Starship into an orbital station.