It’s no secret that a new space race has been brewing for a few years. This time, rather than being a competition between two federal space agencies, the race has more competitors and is more complicated. Besides more state competitors, there are also commercial space entities vying for lucrative positions and contracts. Add to that a network of public-private partnerships, and you have Space Race 2.0!
In particular, there has been quite a stir 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 legal action and a messy public relations campaign. NASA has since removed the stop work order and started payments to SpaceX, who recently indicated that their HLS concept may be ready before the 2024 deadline.
As part of the NextSTEP – 2 Annex H program, NASA has selected SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics to develop the HLS which will take the Artemis III astronauts returning to the lunar surface. Initially, NASA hoped to award contracts to two of these companies, but ultimately opted for SpaceX due to budget and time constraints. In response, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
On July 30, GAO denied the protests and rescinded the stop-work order they had put in place until they could review the protests. Same day, according to CNBC space reporter Michael sheetz, NASA made the first payment for the HLS contract. Based on documents uploaded to USASpening.gov, Sheetz reported that NASA awarded $ 300 million out of a committed amount of $ 439.6 million (the total contract is valued at over $ 3 billion).
In response, the Twitter user All Artemis (@ artemis360_moon), an unofficial account that tracks news related to the Artemis program, contacted Elon Musk. “NASA started its @SpaceX lunar lander payments. Hopefully (and I trust) the SpaceX team will work quickly. @Elon Musk Do you expect Lunar Starship to be ready to land humans in 2024 (despite further delays)? He tweeted. To which Elon replied, “Probably earlier.”
The SpaceX HLS concept is a modified version of the Vessel, which is currently experiencing rapid development (with the Very heavy booster) at the SpaceX launch facility near Boca Chica. According to the latest mockup (shown above) and previous statements from Musk, the HLS spacecraft will have a higher payload capacity as it won’t require heat shields, flaps, and large gas thrusters (all of which are necessary for atmospheric reentry).
It also comes with wider landing legs, than the future. Vessels can completely remove now that SpaceX is building the “Mechazilla” launch tower. Either way, concerns about potential delays and meeting the 2024 deadline extend beyond the four months lost due to GAO’s shutdown order. In addition, issues have been reported with the space suits for exploration extravehicular mobility units (xEMUs), raising concerns that they will not be ready on time.
Here, too, Musk offered SpaceX’s help, saying they could prepare for this other crucial mission element sooner. And of course, there are the high-profile delays that have plagued the Space Launch System (SLS) from the start, as well as the Orion capsule. This has led to speculation that NASA should continue with the task of dismissing the Artemis astronauts using the Vessel and Very heavy.
So, to sum up, NASA is still trying to get back to the Moon by 2024 (as reported by the previous administration). They had to speed everything up, re-prioritize some elements of the mission, and turned to contractors (largely to SpaceX) to take over. ESA and other space agencies are partnering with them to bring this project to fruition, while Russia and China have teamed up to launch a competing program of lunar exploration and colonization.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are fighting over which commercial space mogul will see their logo on the equipment of the lander that brings astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo era. Like I said, complicated!