SpaceX Pulls A Lunar Lander Out Of The Hat

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In the early days of the space program, a famous quote was attributed to multiple astronauts, but Alan Shepard’s version was the most succinct. When he was asked what he was thinking about sitting atop the fueled Redstone rocket, he replied, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”

The astronaut candidates primed for the next Moon mission—aspirationally planned for 2024—must be thinking the same thing now that SpaceX has been awarded the lowest-bid contract to develop the next lunar lander. They must also be eyeing SpaceX’s impressively consistent record of exploding rockets down in Texas, because that’s the very flight hardware they’ll be riding to the lunar surface. Or at least some version of it.

As we’re reporting, SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract last week to develop the lunar lander which it proposed to base on its Starship concept that it hopes will fly humans to Mars. The award was, evidently, a surprise given that a year ago, NASA was least impressed with SpaceX’s initial proposal and found it technically wanting. Two other companies—consortiums, really—were awarded more seed money than SpaceX got.

Blue Origin, teamed with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, was given the most at $579 million, with Dynetics, partnered with Sierra Nevada, $253 million. SpaceX got a paltry $135 million. NASA had its reasons. In a report, then-NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk found that SpaceX’s proposal was developmentally and technically complex and failed to recognize the potential for delays. Besides its astonishing achievements, pyrotechnics notwithstanding, SpaceX and Elon Musk are famous for missed deadlines.

But low bid is low bid and evidently, SpaceX left quite a bit on the table. Blue Origin’s bid was said to be substantially higher and Dynetics’ was substantially higher than Blue Origin’s. No specific values were reported, other than SpaceX’s winning bid.  This not being NASA’s first barbeque on big contracts, it had initially wanted to keep all three companies engaged in a competitive process, but Congress awarded only one quarter of the requested budget, so SpaceX was awarded the sole contract.

During the initial proposal phase, NASA thought Blue Origin’s proposal was the most highly developed and it was thought to have the inside track. What changed, evidently, was that NASA liked the Starship’s capacity to put a lot of weight on the lunar surface—as much as 100 tons—and the agency was impressed with technical progress made on the necessary landing technology. Even if the rockets are reliably blowing up now on landing, NASA probably assumes—rightly—that further developmental work will sort all that out. After all, SpaceX blew up Falcon boosters before it figured out how to land them reliably for reuse. (It has landed 79 and reused 40.)

All three companies proposed different approaches to a new lunar landing. Dynetics was kind of an upgraded version of the Apollo-era Lunar Module, with more capacity and reusability. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon was similar, but larger and more modular for flying different kinds of missions. SpaceX’s version is the giant among the three, towering 160 feet high with a 30-foot diameter. (That’s twice the height of Al Shephard’s Redstone and almost six times the diameter.)   

The overarching program here is called HLS for Human Landing System and the Moon portion of the project is called Artemis, who was Apollo’s sister and the Greek goddess of the hunt, wilderness and the Moon. (And also of chastity, but I’m not sure how NASA PR will handle that.) The program is designed to put the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface.

Like Apollo, it will use lunar orbit rendezvous, but a little differently. SpaceX’s Starship would be launched ahead of time and a crew would dock, having flown from Earth in the new Orion crew capsule. (Parts actually available.) The Starship would then land on the lunar surface and be capable of launching itself to reverse the trip. With a 100-ton payload capacity, the astronauts can have a pretty ambitious camping trip.

Artemis 1, with the Lockheed-built Orion, is scheduled to launch this year, but it’s not clear that it will. Just as a reminder, the Starship we’ve been watching blow up in Texas is the actual landing vehicle; a version of its technology will be used as the Artemis lander. But eventually, that system will be a super heavy launch vehicle itself. Orion, by the way, is intended to launch on NASA’s new SLS—Space Launch System—whose … parts aren’t yet available. But they’re supposed to be before the end of the year for the unmanned Artemis 1 mission. NASA just had a successful hot fire of the SLS engines.

So the $2.9 billion question is whether SLS, Orion and the Starship can all come together for a mission to the Moon in 2024, as proposed by the Trump administration. If it were the very last day of 2024, that leaves about 43 months. Place your bets. I think it’s doable, but my bet is it won’t happen. The schedule will slip past that at least into the following year, if it isn’t canceled altogether.

And judging how Boeing has stumbled with its Starliner crew capsule, I don’t have much confidence that it would bring much to the party to grease things along. The Orion capsule itself has been in development for more than 15 years. Good thing we haven’t been in a hurry. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for NASA’s discussions about awarding the SpaceX sole contract. It could be quite a gamble if it goes south and the other two contractors have gone cold. I’m not sure I would want to own the decision. Then again, sure I would. I’m not worried about my government retirement.

We’ve been talking about a trillion here and a trillion there so often that $2.9 billion seems like a piddling sum for SpaceX’s lander. It’s about the cost of a Virginia-class submarine or a little less than a fifth the price of a Ford-class carrier. But how does it compare to the Apollo-era hardware? Interesting question.

Grumman developed the original Lunar Module with a contact awarded in 1962 for about $350 million. It first flew, manned, in early 1969. Adjusted for inflation—wait for it—that’s about $3 billion in 2021 dollars. I’m sure they’re scratching their heads at Lockheed Martin over how Elon Musk pulled that off.

Of course, he hasn’t yet. But the check is in the mail.

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52 COMMENTS

  1. “So the $2.9 billion question is whether SLS, Orion and the Starship can all come together for a mission to the Moon in 2024, as proposed by the Trump administration.”
    Actually, the endless-billions-of-dollars question is: “Why are we doing manned spaceflight at all?” Robots are two orders of magnitude cheaper, and place no human lives at risk aboard the flight vehicle.
    How much are ego and vanity worth? Well, when the price is paid in other people’s money…

  2. If all this money were instead placed on solving the problems on Earth, namely global warming, clean energy discovery and implementation, food production and equitable distribution, and global plastic refuse, we’d be averting the costly socio/political/economic perturbations that are already crippling humankind. Going to the moon? Aside from it being a fascinating technological challenge, it ain’t going to make people’s lives better, or our world a safe place in which to live.

    • Don’t worry, we’re spending a thousand times what the Artemis and HLS programs cost on those problems.
      Although I doubt that all this stimulus and infrastructure spending will have the desired effect. Money doesn’t solve problems, people do.

    • Besides, don’t you think a Moon or Mars colony will need clean energy, sustainable food production, plastic recycling, and so on? Those technologies will create profound improvements to life here on Earth.

    • The funny thing is, even though Artemis’ funding is a tiny fraction of what is spent on various climate change projects, it will probably end up achieving far more in that area in applicable technology and research.

    • The amount of money being spent on the space program is a drop in the bucket. Look at the benefits we received from the program. The computer or cell phone you wrote your comment are prime examples. We are already peeing away many more dollars on a theory and political agenda dressed up as climate change. No more neeced.

      • Well said sir. Take away all of the advancements we benefit from on a daily basis due to the space program advancements in technology and we probably wouldn’t be communicating online.

        Some people just don’t understand the technology transfer concept

    • “Problems on Earth” ?????
      Just what does anyone think the problems on Earth are all about? Try “resources” and “energy”. Acquire these elsewhere, and perhaps those “problems on Earth” just might be much less of an issue. The more we look and acquire resources and energy, the greater the pollution. Perhaps some feel that there will not be an issue during their lifetime. Those who will live in the future might not appreciate such an attitude.
      For those who happily remember those “happy times in the cave” perhaps go back there and leave the rest of us to attempt to move toward better lives, resources, energy, and such.

    • Manned space flight is an engineering problem.

      All that other stuff is a political problem which you cannot solve until you solve things like intellectual dishonesty, stupidity, demagoguery, etc.

      I’m a free market guy. I know there are things that are not best or easily handled by laissez faire. Still, is it my bias or are many of the regular attacks on free markets stupidity or dishonesty? I don’t know. I just try to pick my battles and keep awareness that I do have biases. Surely I fail, but do most people even try?

      How do you then solve poverty if you cannot get agreement on what it even should be defined as? Same for pollution, clean energy, hunger, etc?

      Manned space flight at least puts up an example of objective reality. They either return alive or not.

  3. Although I am in agreement with Rich in the spirit of responsibility to our Earth first and that we fall short in having a nation consensus for our shared challenges, I have to say, the micro view of the Moon landing effort for me as it relates to nations and governments is quite similar to my having a hangar and an aircraft that only one person of the family uses. Mercifully, the wife and son appear to be fully supportive though. But I’d like to think I have contributed something to the household from my experiences of flying and aircraft ownership over the years. Yet, it has been awhile since we vacationed, and the roof does need new tiles…

    As far as who is primary, humans or robots, I’ll stay with humans for now. Exploration has the potential to bring us into the unknown where revelations great and small could benefit the planet and its peoples, whether it’s the oceans, outer space or into our creative imaginations. Though no one would describe me as a fan of man, I hope the mission is successful – then we can assess the next step from there. Let’s examine $2 Trillion for unnecessary tax breaks and $0 taxes from Amazon before we kill our ability to explore our solar system.

      • Keith…”Why does NASA choose an operation that is unreliable, its rockets blow up repeatedly?”

        SpaceX’s Starship TEST program is just that. And yes, the results have been explosive.

        It’s OPERATIONAL program, the Falcon, is the workhorse of the industry and launches routinely more often than any booster in the world. As Paul accurately noted, it has landed 79 times and reused 40 boosters. The only company that does so. It also has been the resupply booster for ISS for years and is now launching crews.

    • Why do people spend money on buying a new cellphone or clothes when they need to fix their porch or their roof? Because if money was spent only on what was most needed that moment, you could only ever spend money on one thing at a time and it would actually take longer to accomplish everything.

      And remember, money spent on space exploration is not wasted money: much of our modern technology exists because of the space program. Eventually it likely would have come about on its own, but at a slower pace, because much of it didn’t exist previously but was necessary for the space program.

          • A launch customer does help, but does not justify collectivist justification.

            It would be interesting to see where the push was behind the tough glass now used on smartphones. I know that Steve Jobs told Apple’s engineers to ‘fix it’ when their plastic screen protection was getting scratched in his pocket.

            I know that the original iPod was made feasible by Hitachi developing a 1.8″ HDD – Apple had put their concept on the shelf because they could not put enough music time into the package size they wanted, both customer focused requirements. I do not know why Hitachi developed the small HDD, perhaps for a small Sony laptop as they and IBM used it.

  4. You guys are all confused about the side benefits of space exploration such as computers and cell phones. Everyone knows all that stuff was reverse engineered from alien spacecraft. Well okay so it was from a space program, just not ours.

  5. Many moochers:
    – Musk’s cars are heavily subsidized
    – Bezos chose to build engines in Huntsville because it gave him a monetary benefit and for political reasons

    Yes, politicians are involved – some promote a competitor of Blue Origin. Same Old.

    • Bezos funded BO 100 percent up until the agreement with ULA to provide engines. ULA is a private corporation, not government. As far as I know, they have yet to land a government contract beyond flying some small sub-orbital NASA experiments on New Shepard.
      So, in your opinion, are corporate transactions “mooching”?

      SpaceX signed the first agreement to commercially resupply the ISS in 2008. The second in 2014. They also signed agreements to supply crew launch services as well. They have fulfilled all contracted services.
      Also “mooching”? These commercial partnerships have been brought online for a fraction of the old “fixed-priced” traditional contracts in NASA’s history. “Google cost of NASA’s traditional-not-yet-flown SLS launch system for a primer.”
      Again… “mooching”? ​

      Free enterprise.

      • Facts are in Blue Orgin’s deal to put a plant in Huntsville, chosen for a contribution, according to Bezos.

        Facts are in the half billion USAF will not provide Blue Origin for work supporting national security. You might consider that valid as special work for a customer, which would be fair, I presume we’ll never know due security which is valid.

        Facts are in the subsidies Elon Musk receives for Tesla, via government penalties for not meeting EPA requirements, and in the subsidies car customers receive for purchasing them.

        • You rail against government “moochers” like Musk and Bezos, but your clean energy industries are some of the bigger moochers today. Wind farms receive government incentives and preferential dispatch regulations over fossil fuel generation. Solar companies get similar treatment and individuals receive tax credits for installing solar panels on the roofs of their houses. All “clean energy” vehicles from the Prius to the Mach E get tax rebates from the government to encourage their use by the public. Public charging stations for those cars receive tax breaks or other incentives to encourage their installation. Every year, various governments pour huge sums into fusion energy research, which has failed to produce any tangible results in over half a century.

          The government has always used some forms of financial stimulus to encourage development of new technologies or new industries. Financing private space exploration is no different. If you look at the early space programs that sent men to the moon, there were over 400,000 people working in high-tech, good paying jobs to accomplish that effort. That was a pretty good “social welfare” program in my opinion.

    • Tesla’s customers received the same tax credits that buyers of electric cars from any other manufacturer get. Those subsidies are capped at the same number of vehicles sold, which Tesla has reached but others haven’t yet. Tesla will be getting no more money from the government.

      SpaceX has gotten money from the government in exchange for services rendered. With not a single “cost plus” contract. They’ve provided those services both faster and cheaper than their competitors. I’m ok with my tax dollars going to them.

  6. Facts… SpaceX and Tesla are two separate entities. I have no interest in Tesla. But if your allegations are true… GM, Chrysler and Ford have all benefited from Gov bailouts. All paid back… with interest.

    SpaceX has competed, won and fulfilled all government contracts.

    Facts… yes BO was hoping for government “incentives” for moving to Huntsville.
    That has not happened to date.
    Name one NASA contract BO has signed.

  7. Hmm. Although I am impressed with the boldness of Starship by SpaceX, I still have a big doubt about the stability of the lander when it reaches the surface, not to mention how the effects of dust and debris during the last critical meters. The whole thing looks pretty tippy on those teeny landing struts. Author/Artist Herge depicted a similar ship in his “Destination Moon” and “Explorers on the Moon” Tintin series – however, the fictional ship in this early 50’s story had a sturdy, wide-spread tripod landing strut arrangement (see the cover art: https://www.tintin.com/en/albums/explorers-on-the-moon). I realize it’s a lot of extra mass to carry, but I am sure SpaceX engineers can make hash of that and still get a more stable arrangement.

    • I’m confident the SpaceX engineers have put more thought into the landing gear than the Tintin artists.
      The dust-debris issue was solved some time ago when they installed landing thrusters above the fuel tanks.