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SpaceX for the win

SpaceX’s Starship. Image credits: MIT Technology Review

NASA selected SpaceX to build a spacecraft that will land astronauts on the moon for the first time ever since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

NASA’s award to SpaceX to take over the “human landing system” was quite a surprise after competing in a 2-against-1 race. The announcement marked another major win for the hard-charging company taking it further up the ladder as the best of the nation’s private aerospace companies. SpaceX is now solidified as NASA’s most trusted partner.

By winning the $2.9 billion contract, SpaceX beat out its main competitor Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The win came despite the fact that Jeff had formed what he called a “national team” with giant aerospace companies Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

Also, SpaceX won over Dynetics, a defense contractor based in Huntsville, Ala. At first, NASA chose all three companies for its initial phase of the contract with an original plan of choosing two of them, and not one.

NASA usually chooses multiple providers to encourage competition and to ensure having a plan B. However, this time NASA only chose SpaceX.

The Washington Post has obtained a document which explains why NASA made the exception with SpaceX. The space agency said that despite wanting to preserve a competitive environment in its HLS Program, the budget was barely able to accommodate one program. But, SpaceX modified their payment schedule according to NASA’s budget.

VIPER Landing

Falcon Heavy Rocket. Image credits: Universe Today

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will carry the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration ROVER (VIPER) to the moon. It’s the same booster type which previously sent the Starman mannequin mission to space in a Tesla Roadster.  However, this time the lunar landing system belongs to Astrobotic, a private company.

Astrobotic’s contract with NASA allowed the Pennsylvania-based company to independently select a launch contractor other than NASA. And, Astrobotic chose SpaceX after a competitive procurement. 

Similarly to previous  Falcon Heavy missions, SpaceX’s VIPER will take off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Florida. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has always been a launching location of moon missions. It has even launched the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972.

VIPER stands out as a primary element of NASA’s long-term plan to send humans to the moon. The National Space Agency has promised to fulfill its plan by 2024. However it all depends whether the new Joe Biden presidential administration keeps the Donald Trump-era deadline as it is.

The NASA Artemis program will oversee crews preparing to explore the moon and its resources. Crews will use NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

The objective of the Artemis program is to research how to live off the moon sustainably. The program might be able to use resources like the lunar ice water, located at the moon’s south pole. Lunar resources have the potential to help astronauts and machinery perform better during longer missions on the moon.

So, the program will provide an alternative to humans to use the lunar resources instead of bringing everything they needed from Earth.

Landing me Softly

VIPER. Image credits: The Verge

Astrobotic had received a task order from NASA back in 2020 to send VIPER to the moon’s South Pole, the mission was called Artemis 3. The Falcon Heavy was required to launch the Griffin lunar lander to the moon. Then, Griffin touched down on the surface and provided a space for VIPER to move autonomously.

VIPER might as well make history as the first American hardware to land softly on the moon. VIPER is Astrobotic’s second effort if the Peregrine lander touches down safely for its scheduled landing in July at Lacus Mortis on the moon’s South Pole. If Peregrine is successful, it will be the first commercial American lander on the moon.

Falcon Heavy is a ‘complete solution” for Atrobotic who needed a reliable launch vehicle to take them to the moon. SpaceX provides the whole package a team, vehicle, and needed facilities to carry out the mission.

The Griffin lunar lander is currently undergoing qualification testing, the process will be done by the end of 2021. Griffin will be strong enough to support the 1,000 lbs (450 kilograms) VIPER. The overall fixed-cost contract with NASA for the VIPER mission is $199.5 million.

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