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Less than 6 months after its blatant Federal Aviation Administration launch license violation, SpaceX has won the contract to build NASA’s lunar lander spacecraft that will eventually put humans on the moon. SpaceX was among three companies under consideration for building the lunar lander, a cornerstone of NASA’s Artemis program. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Orchid and the somewhat lesser-known Dynetics out of Alabama both put in their own bids for the project, however SpaceX took the grand prize of the $2.9 billion contract.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s space exploration company has garnered much media attention in recent months; aside from the FAA violation, each of its Starship spacecraft tests have ended with an explosion. NASA hopes to launch a manned mission of the lunar lander by 2024 using a successful model the Starship fleet, which has yet to be developed. SpaceX has been fervently building new prototypes of the Starship to meet the rapidly approaching target date for the manned mission launch, which will mark the first human contact with the moon in over half a century.
The Starship spacecraft won’t actually carry the astronauts directly from the Earth to the moon; Boeing is currently developing the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which will transport the space travelers from earth to the Gateway space station. From there, the astronauts will commute to the moon’s surface via the Starship.
NASA has struggled to secure funding for the Artemis program from Congress. The SLS program’s over-budget, behind-schedule operations have only compounded the issue, with many in the space community expressing their belief that the Starship can complete the entire mission without help. NASA has said that, despite the original plan to work with multiple contractors on the lunar lander project, price was a major factor for choosing SpaceX alone.
SpaceX NASA lunar lander contract suspended following formal protest from competitors
Just two weeks after it announced its $2.9 billion contract to build NASA’s lunar lander spacecraft, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been asked to put the project on hold in light of formal protests filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) by competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics. All three space engineering firms had originally been in talks with NASA to collaborate on the Artemis project, which will be the first to put humans on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission nearly 50 years ago; however due to budgetary limitations, NASA chose to only work with SpaceX instead of all three companies.
SpaceX’s Starship rocket system, which is under development for both private and public use ferrying humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars, won the contract for its payload capacity and $2.9 billion bid — far cheaper than what Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin or Dynetics could offer, according to a NASA source selection document
In a lengthy formally-filed protest, Blue Origin accused NASA of making last-minute changes to the proposed lunar lander project that sacrificed the integrity of the project. It also claimed that NASA failed to attempt to negotiate a proposed price with it, where it had done so with SpaceX.
Bezos’s space firm called NASA’s decision “high risk,” claiming that the decision “eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the Moon.”
“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the [Human Landing System] contract has been suspended,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt said in a statement.
True to his devil-may-care attitude with regard to most matters, Musk responded to the Blue Origin protest on Twitter:
SpaceX sends four astronauts to the International Space Station
24 hours after liftoff from the launch site in Florida, the manned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule safely docked with the International Space Station on Saturday morning. The Crew-2 flight is the second of its kind, with the newly-landed astronauts to relieve those who previously made the flight on the Crew-1 mission of their 6-month duties. Two American, one Japanese, and one European joined seven others from the US, Japan, and Russia already aboard the station.
The six-month mission has already reached some impressive milestones. The Friday launch marks the first reuse of a manned spacecraft capsule since the mid-1960s. In an all-time first, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster that propelled the capsule into space was reused as well. The Crew-2 mission was also SpaceX’s first to transport scientists from three different agencies: NASA, ESA, and JAXA.
Eleven astronauts is the highest number the station has seen in recent years, presenting some logistical problems for the four-day “direct handover” period before the Crew-1 astronauts return to earth. The Space Station has accommodations for up to seven people, meaning that two astronauts aboard will have to sleep in the docked capsules, and two others will be without beds.
Despite these challenges, the eleven ISS passengers have expressed exuberant excitement about their gathering. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who was aboard the Crew-1 capsule which launched in November 2020, tweeted a photo of the eleven astronauts with this caption:
Crew-1 will depart the ISS on April 30 following a weather-related delay, and is expected to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on May 1st after spending 18 hours in orbit.
Virgin Galactic unveils Spaceship III space plane, with plans to fly later this year
The “world’s first commercial spaceline” Virgin Galactic has just unveiled the VSS Imagine, the first in its line of Spaceship III space planes. The space tourism company plans to begin flight tests as soon as this summer, according to a recent press release.
The aircraft appears to closely resemble the company’s previous space plane model SpaceShipTwo, which has been in testing phase for more than a decade; however the updated Spaceship III design is supposed to be easier to manufacture and more durable than its predecessor. The space tourism company hopes to use the plane to complete 400 commercial trips to suborbital space each year.
After nearly two decades of tests and redesigns of commercial spacecraft, Virgin Galactic says it plans to fly its billionaire founder Richard Branson to space to kick off the first round of commercial flights. The company hopes to begin launching commercial flights in 2021.
600 people already hold tickets to fly to the edge of space, coughing up between $200,000 to $250,000 for the privilege. While they might not be able to reach the outer limits of Earth just yet, ticket holders can enjoy amenities in Virgin Galactic’s new facility in New Mexico, which includes a retro-futuristic lounge for the astronauts-to-be.