It’s no secret that a new Space Race has been brewing over the past few years. This time, rather than being a competition between two federal space agencies, the race has more competitors and is more complicated. In addition to more state competitors, there are also commercial space entities vying for positions and lucrative contracts. Add to that a network of public-private partnerships, and you have Space Race 2.0!
In particular, there has been quite the stir ever since NASA awarded the Artemis contract for the Human Landing System (HLS) to SpaceX. This resulted in legal challenges filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics (SpaceX’s competitors), as well as a lawsuit and messy public relations campaign. NASA has since removed the stop-work order and commenced payments to SpaceX, which recently indicated their HLS concept could be ready to go 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 take the Artemis III astronauts back to the lunar surface. Initially, NASA hoped to award contracts to two of these companies but ultimately went with SpaceX due to budget constraints and timetables. In response, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
On July 30th, the GAO denied these protests and rescinded the stop-work order they had put in place until they could review the protests. That same day, according to CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz, NASA made the first payment on the HLS contract. Based on documents uploaded to USASpening.gov, Sheetz reported that NASA awarded $300 million out of an obligated amount of $439.6 million (the total contract is valued at 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 its @SpaceX lunar lander payments. Hopefully (and I trust) the SpaceX team will work fast. @elonmusk do you expect to have Lunar Starship ready to land humans in 2024 (despite other delays)?” he Tweeted. To which Elon replied, “Probably sooner.”
The SpaceX HLS concept is a modified version of the Starship, which is currently undergoing rapid development (along with the Super Heavy booster) at SpaceX’s launch facility near Boca Chica. According to the latest mockup (shown above) and previous statements by Musk, the HLS Starship will have a higher payload capacity since it will not require heat shields, flaps, and large gas thruster packs (all of which are needed for atmospheric reentry).
It also comes with wider landing legs, which future Starships may do away with entirely now that SpaceX is building the “Mechazilla” launch tower. In any case, concerns about potential delays and fulfilling the 2024 deadline go beyond the four months lost due to the GAO’s stop order. In addition, there are reported issues with the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits, leading to fears that they won’t be ready in time.
Here too, Musk offered SpaceX’s help, claiming that they could have this other crucial mission element ready sooner. And of course, there are the highly-publicized delays that have plagued the Space Launch System (SLS) from the beginning, as well as the Orion capsule. This has led to speculation that NASA should farm the task of sending the Artemis astronauts back using the Starship and Super Heavy.
So to summarize, NASA is still trying to make it back to the Moon by 2024 (as directed by the previous administration). They’d had to expedite everything, reprioritize certain missions elements, and have turned to contractors (overwhelmingly to SpaceX) to pick up the slack. The ESA and other space agencies are partnered with them to see this through, while Russia and China have partnered to launch a competing lunar exploration and settlement program.
Meanwhile, the contractors are fighting it out to see which commercial space tycoon will see their logo on the equipment on the lander that returns astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. Like I said, complicated!