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It’s been several decades since the Apollo mission and since mankind has visited the moon. But a new space race is on, and NASA has full intentions of returning to the moon soon. But one thing’s notably different in NASA’s approach today compared to years past as it increasingly relies on private industry. With recent successes with SpaceX, Boeing, and others, NASA appreciates how private business can help them achieve their mission. In fact, NASA is now relying on these types of companies to reestablish human travel to the moon in the near future.

Recently, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9-billion-contract to develop a Human Landing System (HLS) for astronauts’ return to the moon. Of course, this isn’t the first collaboration between SpaceX and NASA, nor will it be the last. The contract helps support SpaceX’s own vision of broadening human travel to the moon. That means not only for astronauts but for other private space travelers as well. Elon Musk has even admitted his plan to offer elite trips to the moon for some by 2023. Thus, it appears that SpaceX and NASA have similar goals, which likely increases the odds for success.

“This is an exciting time for NASA and especially the Artemis team. By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time.” – Lisa Watson-Morgan, Program Manager for HLS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

The Lunar Vision for SpaceX and NASA

Human travel to the moon is something that is critical to the new space economy. (Read more about the Space Economy and where it stands in 2021 in this Bold story.) From NASA’s perspective, they launched the Artemis Project in 2017 with these goals in mind. Not only can an active and routine space travel program boost national security efforts. It also opens up potentially new business opportunities for economic growth and development. SpaceX envisions the same type of future, which is why Elon Musk is heavily invested in space development. A Human Landing System would be a major step in establishing the necessary infrastructure to realize such visions.

NASA has already enjoyed significant success with missions to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX played an important role in this regard, especially with its recent crewed missions to the ISS via its Crew Dragon. The ability to meet mission requirements successfully awarded the company high marks. The trust that developed between SpaceX and NASA played a likely role in the recent decision regarding the HLS. NASA chose to forego bids by Blue Origin and Dynetics in favor of Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s lower bid price certainly was a factor, but so was its recent track record of success with NASA.

“Given the evaluation of the three proposals based on technical approach, cost, and management approach, and the budget we have available, we determined the best way forward for us was to select SpaceX for Option A, and then move forward and accelerate the landing services procurement.” – Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s Acting Administrator

But How Safe Is Human Travel to the Moon?

For many, the memories of the Space Shuttle Challenger still exist, which creates anxieties about human travel to the moon. And if spacecraft explosions are reason to provoke additional worries, then you might not be convinced SpaceX will succeed. The spacecraft that SpaceX and NASA hope to use for the HLS is named Starship. In theory, a total of 4 astronauts will travel into lunar orbit inside Lockheed Martin’s Orion. From there, the reusable Starship will transport 2 of the crew to the lunar surface and back. All of this is expected to be achieved by 2024.

A SpaceX hangar in Florida
SpaceX and NASA together might soon be sending people back to the moon – would you go?

Unfortunately, the Starship has yet to enter into Earth’s orbit, and several recent tests have ended in explosions. The last 4 prototypes of the Starship, SN8-SN11, have all failed to accomplish their missions. This has led many to believe that human travel to the moon may take much longer than expected. But SpaceX and NASA seemed undeterred. Elon Musk’s bold philosophy to push the boundaries during testing increases the odds of such mishaps. (Read more about Elon Musk’s bold leadership in this Bold Business profile.) But at the same time, it also advances progress and learning more rapidly. For them, this is simply par for the course. With ach launch, improvements are made and insights are gained. Based on this, SpaceX and NASA believe they are right on track.

“Since January 2020, SpaceX has built 10 Starship prototypes, with production and fidelity accelerating on each build. SpaceX has manufactured and tested more than 60 of Starship’s Raptor engines, accumulating nearly 30,000 seconds of total test time over 567 engine starts, including on multiple Starship static fires and flight tests.” – SpaceX Company Statement

The Innovations and Other Advantages of Private Industry

To develop the scope of human travel to the moon that SpaceX and NASA envision will not be easy. But the public-private partnership emerging between the 2 enterprises highlights why these arrangements are critical. For one, SpaceX has revolutionized the space aeronautical sector with its unique approach to research and testing. Likewise, its creative innovations related to reusable rockets and components have created an array of new opportunities. But at the same time, NASA is benefitted from SpaceX’s private investments. Given its limited budget from Congress, NASA is counting on SpaceX funding a sizable portion of the initial progress. Without such supports, it’s unlikely human travel to moon would happen as quickly.

The overall plan for NASA’s Artemis Program is to initially have un-crewed lunar flights followed by crewed flights that perform fly-bys. If these are successful, then a human landing will be planned for the south lunar pole, hopefully in 2024. This seems like a fast-paced schedule that might be hard for SpaceX to maintain. But Musk is optimistic. In fact, he envisions not only developing the HLS for the moon but using it for space travel to Mars. These are the kind of advantages that public-private partnerships offers to space travel. And hopefully also make human travel to the moon both safe and accessible.

 

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