Only 24 humans have ever set foot on the Moon, with the last to do so landing in 1972. Now, NASA is planning to bring that number up to 26 with the help of SpaceX. NASA launched the Artemis program in 2017 with the goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024, and this partnership marks a significant point in that journey. SpaceX has landed the contract to develop the Human Landing System (HLS), which will transport two of the four astronauts from the Orion spacecraft in orbit to the lunar surface. From there they will explore the moon’s surface, collecting samples and performing scientific experiments for a week, before returning to Orion aboard the HLS.
The Artemis program plans to put the first woman on the moon on the initial spacewalk, and hopes to put the first person of colour on the moon during its run. It will seek to conduct scientific experiments on mice on the lunar surface. This will all serve to inspire a new generation of people around space exploration, and sets SpaceX up for its long term goal of reaching Mars.
The HLS will include two airlocks for moonwalks and a spacious interior for the astronauts, allowing ample room to live in. Before this goes ahead, SpaceX will need to complete an unmanned dry run of the HLS system, likely using their own Starship spacecraft to reach the moon. The Starship has proved quite the challenge for SpaceX, with all four tests exploding near the landing stage. This has not shaken the resolve of investors, with Elon Musk announcing a $1.16 billion round of funding just last Wednesday.
SpaceX faced tough competition from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc for the job. In the end, the deciding factor was the cost. SpaceX put in a price of $2.9 billion, which is reportedly significantly cheaper than the other firms’ offerings. NASA’s budget has been seriously tightened since its heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, and so they were forced to choose the cheapest option.
This is a huge blow to the competitiveness of the commercial space exploration sector, with SpaceX being far and away the dominant firm. When no one else can get their foot in the door, NASA is forced to rely on a single contractor, which benefits no one. To remedy this, NASA is launching a review into competition in the sector, with promises for consultations with other firms, to help reduce NASA’s dependence on SpaceX.
SpaceX has come a long way since its inception in 2002. It suffered a string of launch failures from 2006-2008, with its first successful Falcon 1 launch occurring on 28 September 2008. The next goal was to deliver a payload of cargo to the ISS, which it achieved in 2012. Only recently has SpaceX succeeded as the first private company to send humans to the ISS, with American Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken reaching the space station on the 31 May 2020. Now SpaceX has its sights set on the moon, and if its past is anything to go by, we may return sooner than we think.