Updated: Apr 19, 2021
NASA announced on Friday that it had chosen Elon Musk's private space company SpaceX over Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc. to develop a spacecraft that would transport astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.
Musk's offer beat out one from Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com Inc, who had teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp, and Draper. The Washington Post is also owned by Bezos.
The contract for the first commercial human lander, part of NASA's Artemis programme, was announced in a video conference by the US space agency. The lander would transport two American astronauts to the lunar surface, according to NASA.
"We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible," said Steve Jurczyk, NASA's acting administrator. "This is an incredible time to be involved in human exploration, for all humanity."
"If they hit their milestones we have a shot at 2024," Jurczyk added.
Before humans fly to the moon, NASA has stated that a test flight would be needed.
"In addition, NASA is requiring a test flight to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission," NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.
Mark Kirasich, a NASA official, stated that the agency wants to see all three companies that bid for the first moon landing compete for repeated transportation to the moon.
"We have to be able to provide for recurring lunar services," said Kasich, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Advanced Exploration Systems, adding that NASA will work on a follow-up competition for "regularly recurring" lunar missions.
The NASA announcement capped off an incredible year for Musk, who owns a 22 percent stake in Tesla Inc., making him one of the world's wealthiest people.
Tesla has surpassed the car industry's giants to become the world's most profitable automaker, with a market capitalization of $702 billion. Musk has developed into a one-man technology conglomerate, launching or managing businesses focused on space travel, electric vehicles, neural implants, and subterranean tunnel boring.
"What is the best benefit to the government," said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, was a factor in the choice of SpaceX.
SpaceX's HLS Starship, which is intended to land on the moon, "leans on the company's tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles," according to NASA. Its architecture is intended to develop into a completely reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in space, according to the company. Starship has a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks, according to the company.
The decision by NASA was a setback for Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and one of the world's wealthiest people, who is now more focused on his space venture after announcing his resignation as Amazon CEO in February.
According to Reuters, Bezos and other executives saw the deal as critical to Blue Origin establishing itself as a preferred partner for NASA and placing the company on the path to profitability.
On Wednesday, SpaceX reported that it had raised $1.16 billion in equity funding.
Musk has laid out a bold plan for SpaceX and its reusable rockets, which includes putting humans on Mars. SpaceX's key business in the short term has been launching satellites for Musk's Starlink internet venture, as well as other satellites and space cargo.
Unlike the Apollo lunar landings, which took place from 1969 to 1972, NASA is now preparing for a long-term presence on the moon, which it sees as a steppingstone to an even more ambitious mission to send astronauts to Mars. NASA is relying heavily on private companies with common space exploration visions.
After a test launch from Boca Chica, Texas, an unmanned SpaceX Starship concept rocket failed to land safely on March 30. The Starship was one of several designs for SpaceX's heavy-lift rocket, which will carry humans and 100 tonnes of cargo on missions to the moon and Mars in the future. The first orbital Starship flight is scheduled for the end of the year.
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