SpaceX wins contract to develop spacecraft to land astronauts on the moon

The company beat out Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Dynetics, a defense contractor

By Christian Davenport | The Washington Post

NASA on Friday selected Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build spacecraft that would land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission.

The award to SpaceX for the “human landing system” was a stunning announcement that marked another major victory for the hard-charging company that vaults it to the top tier of the nation’s aerospace companies and solidifies it as one of the space agency’s most trusted partners.

In winning the $2.9 billion contract, SpaceX beat out Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which had formed what it called a “national team” by partnering with aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. SpaceX also won over Dynetics, a defense contractor based in Huntsville, Ala. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

NASA had originally chosen all three companies for the initial phase of the contract, and was expected to choose two of them to build the lunar lander. In other major programs, NASA has chosen multiple providers to foster competition and to ensure it has redundancy in case one can’t deliver.

In a document explaining NASA’s rationale for picking SpaceX obtained by The Washington Post, NASA said it wanted “to preserve a competitive environment at this stage of the HLS Program.” But it added that “NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single [contract] award.” As a result, SpaceX updated its payment schedule so that it now fits “within NASA’s current budget.”

But in moving ahead with SpaceX alone, it sent a message that it fully trusts the growing company to fly its astronauts for its signature human exploration program — Artemis, a campaign to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.

“As the first human lunar lander in 50 years, this innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in space exploration history,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s lunar lander program manager, said during a news briefing announcing the award. “NASA’s Apollo program captured the world’s attention, demonstrated the power of America’s vision and technology, and can-do spirit. And we expect Artemis will similarly inspire great achievements, innovation and scientific discoveries. We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX to help us achieve the Artemis mission.”

Over the past several years, SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002 with the goal of eventually flying humans to Mars, has completely upended the space industry, moving through fast, and at times fiery test campaigns that have unsettled traditional industry officials but also ignited new waves of enthusiasm not seen since the early days of the Space Age.

When Musk first started the company, even he didn’t think it would succeed. In 2008, after three test flights of its Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach orbit, he was nearly out of money. But the next test was successful, and NASA awarded the company a modest contract that kept it afloat.

In the years since, SpaceX has flown cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, and then, astronauts, overcoming skeptics who said human spaceflight should never be outsourced to the private sector, and certainly not to a company as green — and brash — as SpaceX.

In 2015, one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a mission for NASA flying cargo to the station. Another exploded on the launchpad ahead of an engine test in 2016. And after Musk smoked pot on a podcast broadcast on the Internet, then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine ordered a safety review of the entire company.

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