NASA forced to suspend the contract for SpaceX’s lunar lander

[VIDEO] Soon a permanent base on the Moon?   The Moon is the closest star to Earth. However, since the end of the Apollo program, our natural satellite has not seen a visit. This may soon change as the European Space Agency (ESA) prepares to build a permanent base on its surface. The Euronews channel tells us about this ambitious project in this new episode of Space.


The companies Blue Origin and Dynetics have seized the American equivalent of the Court of Auditors to protest against NASA’s choice to award SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract to develop a lunar version of the Starship and carry out a mission unmanned demonstration. In accordance with the rules of American law, NASA was therefore forced to order SpaceX to suspend all its development work on the Lunar Starship under the HLS contract until the  Government Accountability Office (GAO) renders a decision, expected by August 4 at the latest.

In a 50-page document, Blue Origin makes several criticisms of NASA, including unfair competition, and considers the choice of NASA to be both risky and uncompetitive. As for Dynetics, it simply indicated that it had filed a complaint with the GAO and that it did not wish to make public the reasons for which it had filed this complaint.

Concepts d'atterrisseurs lunaires à l'étude dans le cadre du programme Artemis de la Nasa. Cet atterrisseur servira à descendre les équipages sur la surface de la Lune depuis l'orbite lunaire et les ramènera en orbite. De gauche à droite, le projet de Blue Origin, de Dynetics (auquel participe Thales Alenia Space) et celui de SpaceX. © Blue Origin, Dynetics, SpaceX, Nasa

Man’s return to the Moon delayed by several years

At the time of the award of this contract, NASA’s decision had surprised. First, because NASA had repeatedly insisted on its desire to retain two out of three projects in order to maintain competition and keep two alternative lending solutions and also for the reasons we have mentioned previously.

The date of return of American astronauts to the Moon, currently set at 2024, is no longer relevant. The new schedule of the Artemis program that NASA will have to update following this decision means that there is no longer any chance of allowing the return of the astronauts to the Moon in 2024. At best, a first manned mission could take place in 2027.



Why did NASA choose SpaceX’s Starship for the Artemis manned mission? Decryption

By choosing SpaceX’s Starship to bring Artemis mission astronauts to the moon, NASA surprised the space community. And what a surprise! Because rather than a lunar transport system, it would be wiser to talk about a lunar base! Explanations from Didier Schmitt, responsible for strategy and coordination of human and robotic exploration at ESA.

After a selection process lasting several months, NASA chose the Starship, in its lunar version, to bring “post-Apollo” astronauts to the moon. SpaceX has won a $ 2.89 billion contract to develop a lunar version of the Starship and perform an unmanned demonstration mission. This choice of SpaceX was made to the detriment of the other two competitors, namely the National Team of Blue Origin and Dynetics, the latter being associated with Thales Alenia Space, the world leader in pressurized modules.

Similar to ISS cargo refueling and crew rotation, NASA will purchase lunar landing services under a separate contract. NASA thus confirms the American philosophy, instilled by Barack Obama, to go towards the whole commercial rather than a more conventional contractual approach where it would be the owner of the vehicles and the intellectual property. Pushing the commercial sector, including lunar flights, is a strategy based on the already old American doctrine of “space dominance”. To dominate is not just to be in front of others, it is to be far ahead! This was the principle of Apollo. The United States was outnumbered by the Soviet Union for a decade, then largely left them with extraordinary effort. Today, the Moon is the target again, but this time the race is on with China.



This choice is obviously very surprising but ”  also very daring  ” explains Didier Schmitt, responsible for strategy and coordination of human and robotic exploration at ESA. Within the space community, “  nobody expected this choice  ”! This is a choice assumed by Kathy Lueders, the director of exploration and operations at NASA but also the future administrator of the American agency. We have not finished hearing about this historic decision which will have ”  consequences on future flights in low orbit, by the drastic reduction in costs, flights to and on the Moon, with top-of-the-range tourism which will take place. profile in the next decade, and then the “.


SpaceX Starship: this choice is obviously very surprising but " also very daring "

Is Congress going to fund a plan B?

Although NASA has repeatedly insisted on its desire to retain 2 out of 3 projects in order to maintain a certain competition and keep 2 alternative lending solutions, the Agency was in a way forced to review its plans. And if it chose to award the only company SpaceX a development contract, this is explained by the budget cuts imposed by Congress for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 which do not allow it to select 2 companies. Of the three proposals, SpaceX’s was the cheapest, by far. Blue Origin’s National Team was offering a system worth over $ 10 billion and Dynamics was asking for $ 5 billion in funding. To win the bet,

This choice is also a very clear message sent to Congress. Taking into account the only proposal that stuck to the budget, is NASA pushing Congress to finance a second competitor? To be continued.

However, the choice of SpaceX “  was not made only on financial considerations  ”. It is also a sacred bet on ”  the future of human exploration, and of the Moon in particular “. By ignoring the  Old space, NASA is banking on “  innovation and a new way of working  ”. In addition, the United States is in a race to the moon with China. However, the Chinese decision to develop a super-heavy launcher indicates that China will be ready to ”  launch a manned mission to the Moon by the very beginning of the next decade, or even before the end of the 2020 decade. “. For the United States, taking the risk of financing a single project is a ”  huge political risk that China will arrive first on the Moon if SpaceX is far behind in the development of this Human Landing System  “. If NASA relies solely on SpaceX, it is also because Elon Musk‘s company has proven itself with the Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule, and the Crew Dragon: ”  There is, therefore, no reason for that they fail to do so, the question is how quickly, and what level of risk  ”

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300 square meters of living space on the Moon!

That said, technically, SpaceX’s proposal holds up, but it is ”  the riskiest of the three.” And therefore the most daring  ”. This lunar Starship could ”  call into question all the lunar base projects which cost tens of billions of dollars to install “. If NASA rejected the proposals of the National team and Dynamics, which each proposed an Apollo-type concept (that is to say a lander surmounted by the ascent vehicle in orbit), it is not only for question costs. It is also because these two transport systems could deliver to the surface of the Moon “only” from 10 to 12 tons of payload, against nearly 100 tons for SpaceX. In other words, SpaceX brings a “ lunar base for each mission with unbeatable possibilities in terms of a number of crew members, freight, heavy equipment …  ”And what a base! With a volume of 1,000 cubic meters, the total volume of the Lunar Starship is ”  equivalent to that of the International Space Station  “. The other two options offered only 12 and 15 m 3 of volume! It’s revolutionary. NASA has always been conservative in these choices, ”  n ‘ has never made bold choices too  .” This contract reinforces the ambitions of Elon Musk who created SpaceX, in 2002, with the aim of conquering Mars.


The United States will not return to the moon in 2024

Finally, concerning the schedule for the return of the United States to the Moon, the date of return of American astronauts to the Moon, currently set at 2024, is decidedly no longer relevant. The latest budget decisions by the Biden administration and the expected development timelines for the Lunar Starship do not allow us to be ready on the date President Trump wants.

Moreover, despite the assurance of maintaining an ambitious policy in this area, the Biden administration is careful not to mention the year 2024 as the date of Man’s return to the Moon in its official communications.


NASA retains these three lunar lander projects

The plans for lunar landers from Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics (with Thales Alenia Space) have been selected by NASA. The three companies have until February 2021 to refine their proposal. On that date, NASA will select the selected landing system and give the green light to the manufacture of the first two flight units serving the missions of 2024 and 2026.

NASA, which aims to return to the Moon in 2024, unveiled the three companies selected to present a successful project of their landing system to transport crews between the lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis program. This future vehicle should allow a crew of two to four astronauts to reach the lunar surface, live and operate on the ground for at least a week, then reach lunar orbit.

These are Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics. Thales Alenia Space will be a Dynetics partner and will be in charge of the design of the pressurized cabin, the crew’s living quarters including the primary structure, the hatch, and the extravehicular activities access door, the windows, and thermal protection. and anti micrometeorites. Boeing’s lunar lander project, in partnership with Vivace, was not selected. A new setback for Boeing, which did not win a contract for the construction of elements of the small lunar station (the Gateway ) either. 

In February 2021, NASA will review each project and select one or more. Given the very short deadlines between now and 2024, the date scheduled for the first manned mission, the lender most likely to be ready on that date will be selected, NASA said. However, NASA does not rule out selecting one of the other two companies, or even both, to develop more successful landers better suited to subsequent missions that could last up to 45 days.

Lunar lander concepts under study on behalf of NASA.  From left to right, the project of Blue Origin, Dynetics (in which Thales Alenia Space participates) and that of SpaceX.  © Blue Origin, Dynetics, SpaceX, Nasa

Lunar lander concepts understudy on behalf of NASA. From left to right, the project of Blue Origin, Dynetics (in which Thales Alenia Space participates), and that of SpaceX. © Blue Origin, Dynetics, SpaceX, Nasa

Uncertainty about the fate of the small lunar station

None of the three companies selected has offered to use the  Space Launch System (SLS) that Boeing is developing on behalf of NASA and whose future is gloomy. Blue Origin will use its New Glenn launcher or ULA’s Vulcan, for which it will supply the main stage engine. Dynetics will also use ULA’s Vulcan while SpaceX, unsurprisingly, will use Super Heavy. If NASA wanted to be reassuring about the future of the SLS, stressing that it will be used to launch the Orion vehicle and robotic missions, its usefulness could be questioned. This program is several years behind schedule, with significant cost overruns and a running cost announced as much higher than those of other developing American launchers, also capable of launching a manned capsule.

NASA also specified that, for the first two manned missions to return to the Moon, in 2024 and 2026, the Gateway will not be ready. The initial scenario, which provided for using the Gateway as an outpost, where the Orion vehicle and the lunar lander would moor, is therefore abandoned in favor of an uncertain crew transfer maneuver in orbit. Initially, the crews were to reach this small station before boarding the lunar lander. In this new scenario, which is inspired by the Apollo missions, the transfer of crews, from the Orion vehicle to the lunar lander, will be carried out in orbit near the Moon.

Although NASA is convinced of the usefulness of the Gateway, which it presents as ”  of critical importance ” for the following phases of lunar exploration, its interest, like that of the SLS, could be called into question as the US will have to fund a massive plan to revive the economy, hard hit by the pandemic of coronavirus. To be continued then.

NASA announces a new “major” step in the Artemis lunar program

This Monday, July 22, the American space agency asked the aerospace sector to offer it detailed projects for vehicles to land two astronauts on the Moon by 2024, an objective reaffirmed by the United States during the 50th anniversary of the mission. Apollo 11

NASA has announced a new “major” step in the lunar program, dubbed Artemis, with the publication of documents explaining in detail what it expects from the space sector. The goal is to land two astronauts, including a woman, on lunar soil in 2024, at the South Pole, where they would stay six and a half days, according to one of these documents.

Eleven companies were selected in May by NASA to conduct feasibility studies and develop prototypes within six months, including traditional industry giants (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman) and newcomers like SpaceX and Blue Origin, the firm of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, which has already presented a lander project.

NASA is shifting into high gear

This time, NASA takes it a step further, with dozens of pages of prerequisites for onboard electronics, communications, and even spacesuits. Any company can answer.

“The day after the 50 th anniversary of Apollo 11, we just released a draft solicitation to US companies to help us develop the human landing system of the XXI th century that will land on the moon to the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024, ” tweeted NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We’re going,” he added in block letters.

It is only in several months that NASA, after receiving responses from space firms, will decide who will build it and how. This lander will be the equivalent of the lunar module that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. One important difference, however: the vehicle will be docked at a mini-station orbiting the Moon, “Gateway”, which will serve as a stopover point between the Earth and the Moon, in particular, to be reused and refueled.

At the moment, the Artemis program is behind schedule, mainly due to the construction delays of the SLS heavy launcher.


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Written by Shraddha Diwan

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