In a sign it’s serious about getting the “first woman” and “first person of color” to the moon in the near future, the US space agency NASA has contracted Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build a lunar lander, based on the Starship concept.
NASA has selected SpaceX “to continue development of the first commercial human lander that will safely carry the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface,” the agency announced on Friday.
“At least one of those astronauts will make history as the first woman on the Moon. Another goal of the Artemis program includes landing the first person of color on the lunar surface,” NASA added.
“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 Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA.
The total value of the “firm-fixed price, milestone-based contract” with SpaceX is $2.89 billion.
NASA’s statement referred to “SpaceX’s HLS Starship, designed to land on the Moon” and “intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations.”
In development since 2016, Starship has been undergoing intensive testing as of late, more often than not resulting in what Musk once called “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
On the other hand, SpaceX managed to reliably get its Falcon 9 booster rockets to land after launch within just three years, and successfully produced a spacecraft capable of taking American astronauts into orbit. The May 2020 launch of the Crew Dragon to the International Space Station marked the symbolic end of NASA’s dependence on Russian spacecraft that began in 2011 with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle.
Musk’s major challenge will be getting the Starship to successfully interface with the Orion spacecraft, which NASA wants to use for the journey to lunar orbit. The Orion is a collaboration between Lockheed Martin – makers of the notorious F-35 fighter jet – and Airbus Defense and Space. The Artemis mission is supposed to have a crew of four, two of which are intended to spend a week exploring the lunar surface.
Envisioned by President Donald Trump in 2017 and originally intended to land on the moon by 2024, the Artemis program is running behind schedule due to lack of funding by Congress. While keeping the program running at current funding levels, the Biden administration appears to have placed greater priority on the identity of the next crew.
The next major contract in the Artemis program will be for the construction of the Gateway, a lunar orbiting station that is supposed to provide support for future missions and act as a staging point for deep space exploration – such as sending humans to Mars and beyond.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have signed a deal to jointly build a research station on the moon, signaling a repeat of the Cold War “space race” might be in the works.
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