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NASA commissions SpaceX to develop moon lander

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April 18, 2021, 6:58 p.m.

SpaceX receives a $ 2.89 billion contract from NASA to develop the human landing system for the next moon landing. SpaceX asserts itself against competitors of the "Old-Space". Two demonstration flights, one of them with two astronauts, are planned. The later transport service is to be put out to tender again.

HLS Starship on the Moon (illustration)
(Image: SpaceX)
On April 16, 2021, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX the contract to develop and demonstrate its Human Landing System (HLS) as part of its Artemis program. The space company of PayPal and Tesla founder Elon Musk has offered for a price of 2.89 billion dollars to develop a lunar lander based on their spacecraft called Starship, which is currently in development. The contract includes development, testing and two demonstration flights, with the second two astronauts, at least one of whom is a woman, on board and stepping onto the surface of the moon.

The process envisages a start of the HLS Starship on the Super Heavy, which is under development, reusable SpaceX starting stage and multiple refueling by Starship tankers in low earth orbit (LEO). Then the transfer to lunar orbit occurs. During the human demonstration mission, four astronauts start independently with the SLS, NASA's heavy-duty rocket, whose first launch is planned for the end of 2021, use the Orion capsule for the transfer to the moon and for pivoting into the lunar orbit, which is also commissioned developed by NASA. In lunar orbit there is a docking with the HLS from SpaceX and after a first inhuman mission, two astronauts will then descend to the lunar surface near the South Pole during the second demonstration, get off there and explore the area for about a week. Then they will ascend again with the HLS into lunar orbit, couple with Orion, transfer and return to earth in the spacecraft, also known as MPCV (Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle), and float in the Pacific. The HLS itself will not return to Earth. The capacity of the HLS is designed for at least 4 astronauts.

In contrast to the SLS and the Orion capsule, the HLS will not become the property of NASA, instead the development will be entrusted with a milestone-oriented fixed price contract. After the two demonstration flights, the actual "transport service" is to be put out to tender again, similar to the commercial transport and commercial crew contracts for the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX has prevailed with its concept against offers from two other consortia, led by Dynetics and Blue Origin. NASA was not only impressed by the lowest price, but also by the technical advantages and the highest rated management rating (“Outstanding”). It offers by far the largest transport capacity of all offers. Even if his concept contains additional difficulties, such as an exit hatch located about 30 meters above the surface of the moon, it offers additional safety margins and later further development options thanks to larger fuel and equipment reserves.

Technical and management assessment of the three bidders by NASA
(Image: NASA)

NASA is very critical of the need for numerous rocket launches and refueling operations with cryogenic fuels, but also acknowledges that these difficult maneuvers take place in earth orbit and not in lunar orbit. The competitors had proposed concepts that would have required more coupling processes between different assemblies near the moon. The bidder evaluation sees a certain weak point in the development of the necessary propulsion systems, even if SpaceX is already testing prototypes of its Raptor methane-oxygen engine.

Author's comment:
By choosing SpaceX, NASA is taking a calculated risk. The requirement of the old Trump administration to carry out a moon landing in 2024 will hardly be sustainable even with this decision. On the other hand, the Senate and Congress have regularly increased the funds for SLS and Orion in recent years compared to NASA's request, but reduced the funds for the Human Landing System. With this limited budget, SpaceX is the only bidder who even has the prospect of developing a lunar lander with these funds. It is noteworthy that the concept of the company, which is often declared with "New Space", in technical and management-related criteria sometimes clearly outshines the competition!

When it comes to the price, SpaceX can certainly score points by developing parts of the necessary infrastructure, in particular Raptor engines, super heavy launchers, Starship tankers and ground infrastructure "anyway" for Musks Mars plans. Nevertheless, the development of the HLS Starship will not be trivial, even if it does not need wings or heat protection tiles, as it will not return to earth with its atmosphere. To do this, the drive system has to be adapted to the low lunar gravity, the target coordinates have to be found without GPS, the landing succeeds without a prepared landing site and operations in the lunar environment still work safely even after days and weeks. Even if Scott Manley is right (see video), and SpaceX was the only company that was ready in the selection process to adjust the timeline so that the first human moon landing since 1972 could still take place in 2024, the feasibility in this short time may be doubted. Even if SpaceX did finally realize many of its announcements, this company can also be classified as "Old Space" these days in terms of its timeouts. It goes so far that with "Elon-Time" a separate term for the over-ambitious deadlines of the richest person on earth has found its way into everyday (space travel) language usage.

The greatest risk, however, is likely to be that NASA has deviated from the security philosophy of the last few years of commissioning at least two companies for system-critical services due to lack of money. Even if SpaceX has proven that it can regularly, reliably and partially reusable transport satellites, spaceships and probes into orbit and beyond, the ambitious development of the Starship ecosystem (super heavy, earth-landing Starships for crew, as tankers and as freighter as well as HLS- Starship moon lander) and the "high-flying" Mars plans directly on Elon Musk. Should something happen to him or the workaholic's health be damaged, then one has to fear that SpaceX would become a “completely normal company”. I wish Mr. Musk the best of health and all the best, but the fact that many developments are dependent on him is the greatest weakness of his company.

The fact that the transport service is to be tendered again independently later, theoretically opens the market for competitors, but also offers NASA the option not only of the “last mile” from the lunar orbit to the surface, but the entire “travel route” without expensive SLS / Orion Cope with the combination by hiring SpaceX to transport the astronauts from the earth to the moon and back.

NASA press release

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