It’s no secret that a new space race has been brewing in recent years. This time around, the race is not a competition between two state space agencies; it has more competitors and is more complicated. In addition to more government competitors, commercial space companies are also vying for positions and lucrative contracts. Add a network of public-private partnerships and you have Space Race 2.0!
There has been a lot of buzz since NASA awarded the Artemis contract for the Human Landing System (HLS) to SpaceX. This led to legal challenges from Blue Origin and Dynetics (SpaceX’s competitors), as well as a lawsuit and chaotic public relations campaign. NASA has since taken off work and started making payments to SpaceX, recently indicating that their HLS concept could be operational before the 2024 deadline.
As part of the NextSTEP – 2 Appendix H program, NASA selected SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics to develop the HLS that will bring the Artemis III astronauts back to the lunar surface. NASA originally hoped to award contracts to two of these companies, but ultimately chose SpaceX due to budget constraints and schedules. In response, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
NASA has started their @SpaceX Moon Lander payments. Hopefully (and I trust) the SpaceX team will work quickly. @elonmusk do you expect the Lunar Starship 2024 to be ready to land humans (despite other delays)? https://t.co/jWIl6Hhw20
– Alles Artemis (@ artemis360_moon) August 15, 2021
On July 30, GAO rejected these protests and suspended the work stoppage it issued until it could review the protests. On the same day, NASA made the first payment for the HLS contract, according to CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz. Based on documents uploaded to USASpening.gov, Sheetz reported that NASA has granted $ 300 million out of a binding amount of $ 439.6 million (the total contract value is over $ 3 billion).
In response, Twitter user Everything Artemis (@ artemis360_moon), an unofficial account that tracks news related to the Artemis program, reached out to Elon Musk. “NASA has started their @SpaceX Moon Lander payments. Hopefully (and I trust) the SpaceX team will work quickly. @elonmusk do you expect the Lunar Starship 2024 to be ready to land humans (despite other delays)? ”he tweeted. To which Elon replied: “Probably earlier.”
The SpaceX HLS concept is a modified version of the Starship that is currently undergoing rapid development (along with the Super Heavy booster) at SpaceX’s launch facility near Boca Chica. According to the latest model (see above) and previous statements from Musk, the HLS Starship will have a higher payload capacity because it does not require heat shields, flaps, and large gas thruster packages (all of which are required for atmospheric re-entry).
It also comes with wider landing legs that future Starships may do without completely, as SpaceX is building the “Mechazilla” launch tower. In any event, concerns about possible delays and compliance with the 2024 deadline will extend beyond the four months lost due to the GAO’s stop order. In addition, issues are being reported with the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits leading to fears that they will not be completed on time.
Twilight at SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility. Image Credit: SpaceX
Again, Musk SpaceX offered help, claiming that they could have this other crucial mission element ready sooner. And of course there are the much-noticed delays that plagued the Space Launch System (SLS) from the start, as well as the Orion capsule. This has led to speculation that NASA should take on the task of sending the Artemis astronauts back with the Starship and Super Heavy.
To sum up, NASA is still trying to get back to the moon by 2024 (as directed by the previous government). They had to speed everything up, re-prioritize certain mission elements, and turned to contractors (mostly SpaceX) to fill the void. ESA and other space agencies are working with them to enforce this, while Russia and China have teamed up to launch a competing lunar exploration and settlement program.
Meanwhile, contractors are fighting over which commercial space tycoon will see their logo on the equipment of the lander bringing astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. As I said, complicated!