SpaceX
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design. SpaceX

NASA is planning to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time in almost 50 years, thanks to the Artemis program. And today (April 16, 2021), NASA announced that SpaceX will develop the first commercial human lander, and that SpaceX will ultimately be responsible for carrying the next two American astronauts to the lunar surface.

It was a notable win.

The contract is worth an impressive $2.9 billion. And to secure the contract, SpaceX was forced to best Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which had formed an impressive team by partnering with aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

But the trio didn’t have enough to beat SpaceX.

Dynetics, a defense contractor, also participated in the competition alongside the others. It was expected that two would be selected for the next stage, and by selecting SpaceX alone, NASA lent an added air of trust to the burgeoning company.

“As the first human lunar lander in 50 years, this innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in space exploration history,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s lunar lander program manager, said during a news briefing announcing the award.

She continued by comparing the Artemis program to the earliest days of spaceflight. “NASA’s Apollo program captured the world’s attention, demonstrated the power of America’s vision and technology, and can-do spirit. And we expect Artemis will similarly inspire great achievements, innovation, and scientific discoveries. We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX to help us achieve the Artemis mission,” Watson-Morgan said.

Also of note, the Artemis program goals include landing the first person of color and the first woman on the lunar surface.

“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed demonstration mission to the surface of the Moon in the 21st century as the agency takes a step forward for women’s equality and long-term deep space exploration,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate.

Ultimately, this is just the latest big news to come out this month about the Artemis mission. Just a few weeks back, the Biden administration proposed a $24.7 billion budget for NASA, which ultimately represents a 6.3 percent increase. Notably, this increase included an additional $325 million for the Artemis program.

When the new budget was unveiled, Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk praised the move and additional funding. Crucially, Jurczyk noted that the decision “supports the development of capabilities for sustainable, long-duration human exploration beyond Earth, and eventually to Mars.”

Through these sentiments, Jurczyk offered a critical reminder: The Moon isn’t the end target.

Rather, NASA has grandiose plans to send the first humans to Mars in the coming years. This most recent announcement increases the likeliness that SpaceX  will work with NASA on these later steps to the Red Planet.

Looking beyond the Moon

SpaceX’s HLS Starship, which is designed to land on the Moon, is intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system, one that is designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations (Pluto, anyone?).

“This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the solar system, including Mars,” Lueders added in the briefing.

It may seem like a bit of a jump to go from making a short trip to the Moon to taking a long hike to Mars; however, a number of architects and design firms are already working on plans for homes and cities that could sustain humanity on Mars and protect us from the harsh environment.

And many are further along in their projects than you may suspect.

Viable timeframes for this later work are still very much in flux and, for now, it remains unclear when (if ever) humans will become a multi-planetary species. However, in late March, architectural and design studio ABIBOO estimated that construction of a Martian city might start by 2054.

But until we can once again put astronauts on the surface of the Moon and then Mars, it’s difficult to predict when our multi-planetary quest can go forward with certainty.

“All critical paths start in the lab — [it] sounds realistic to say we could start in 2054, but it depends on these other parts. If one of them is delayed, then all are,” Alfredo Munoz, Founder and the head of the architectural team at ABIBOO, explained in an interview with Interesting Engineering.

This article was updated as new information about the decision was announced.

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