NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship to return astronauts to the moon

SpaceX Starship wins 1st contract from NASA to develop human landing system

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon's surface during the Artemis mission. Credits: SpaceX (WKMG 2021)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA has selected SpaceX’s Starship spaceship to be the first company to put astronauts back on the moon under the Artemis program.

SpaceX beat out two competitors for the $2.9 billion contract to develop a human landing system under this first funding round. Elon Musk’s company will own and operate Starship on several demonstration missions with NASA support.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk made the announcement on Friday on the Kennedy Space Center runway moments after the four Crew-2 mission astronauts arrived that the agency would “have an important announcement relative to the human landing system, HLS.”

After the announcement, Jurczyk did not offer a new timeline for the first landing which would return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.

“We believe that turning to the moon is strategically important with numerous rewards and benefits, and we should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible,” he said.

The human landing system is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program slated to return astronauts to the lunar surface beginning in 2024.

NASA sought proposals for human lunar landing systems from American companies and by the November 2019 deadline, all the big names in space had thrown their hard hats in the ring, including Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics.

Ultimately, NASA selected three of those bids to move on for further consideration:

  • SpaceX’s Starship spaceship using the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket booster for launch.
  • Blue Origin’s national team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, was developing an Integrated Lander Vehicle, a three-stage lander to be launched on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
  • Dynetics, a Leidos company, was developing the Dynetics Human Landing System, a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system or NASA’s SLS.

The Washington Post was first to report SpaceX had the winning bid with its reusable Starship spaceship. However, the other companies aren’t out of the mix yet. This first contract is for the initial two demonstration flights to the moon but NASA plans to award an additional contract for recurring trips to the lunar surface with astronauts.

“As the first human lunar lander in 50 years, this innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in space exploration history,” NASA HLS program manager Lisa Watson-Morgan said.

SpaceX Starship SN10 blows up after successful landing in Boca Chica, Texas on March 3, 2021.

SpaceX has been testing and developing its Starship spaceship in Boca Chica, Texas. Most recently, the company has started taking a prototype on high-altitude flights but all four landing attempts have ended in explosions.

What comes next?

SpaceX will continue to work with NASA to perform two demonstration missions, one without astronauts and then one with a crew, Watson-Morgan said.

NASA experts with the Human Landing System program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama will  work closely with SpaceX during the development phase. Watson-Morgan, as the head of HLS, will assign NASA personnel to support the work of each contractor.

For the demonstration missions, Starship will need to be able to dock with NASA’s Orion spacecraft but eventually, all human landing systems will need to be able to dock and undock from NASA’s Gateway station that will be the orbiting outpost of the moon.

According to NASA’s timeline, the agency still plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 but NASA’s head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders said safety will not be compromised to reach that goal.

“We always fly when it’s safe,” she said, adding “Yes, you have a goal of when you want something to happen, but we are flying people again and we will be flying people to the lunar surface, and we’ll do it when it’s safe.”

Check back for updates on this developing story.