The next humans to visit the surface of the moon will catch a ride courtesy of not only NASA, but Elon Musk and SpaceX.
The space agency announced Friday that it’s selected the high-profile rocket and satellite builder to provide the human landing system for its Artemis program, which aims to send the first astronauts to the moon since the end of the Apollo program, including the first woman to step on the lunar surface, later this decade.
SpaceX already has a vehicle in mind and under development for the job. Starship is the next generation spacecraft that’s already made some dramatic test flights from the company’s Texas Gulf Coast development facility. So far, each high-altitude flight has been followed by an explosive landing phase, but Musk isn’t deterred.
Starship is designed to transport astronauts to the moon and many more humans to other worlds like Mars, where Musk hopes humanity will expand to become a “multiplanetary species.”
SpaceX won the massive NASA contract by bidding $2.9 billion for the job, beating out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Alabama-based military and space contractor Dynetics.
According to a statement from NASA, Artemis astronauts won’t be riding Starship all the way from the Earth to the lunar surface, at least not to start. Instead, a quartet of astronauts will launch aboard NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft on a multiday trip to lunar orbit. NASA is planning to build a small space station called the Lunar Gateway in orbit around the moon that’ll serve as a staging outpost for trips to the moon itself.
In lunar orbit, astronauts will transfer to a waiting Starship for the trip to the surface, a period of exploration followed by a return to lunar orbit and then back home on Orion.
In a press conference following the announcement, NASA’s human landing system chief, Lisa Watkins-Morgan, also revealed that SpaceX will need to perform an uncrewed test landing on the moon before taking astronauts there. This is in line with the approach taken with the company’s Crew Dragon that took astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time last year.
NASA had hoped to make awards to two companies in order to make the process competitive, but the agency had the funding for only one, making SpaceX’s low bid attractive.
SpaceX is also further along in the development process than any other company and has long intended to send Starship to the moon and Mars, with or without NASA’s support.