NASA picks SpaceX and Starship to send Artemis astronauts to the moon

Onboard Couriers

The next humans to visit the surface of the moon will catch a ride courtesy of not only NASA, but Elon Musk and SpaceX.

The space agency announced Friday that it’s selected the high-profile rocket and satellite builder to provide the human landing system for its Artemis program, which aims to send the first astronauts to the moon since the end of the Apollo program, including the first woman to step on the lunar surface, later this decade.

SpaceX already has a vehicle in mind and under development for the job. Starship is the next generation spacecraft that’s already made some dramatic test flights from the company’s Texas Gulf Coast development facility. So far, each high-altitude flight has been followed by an explosive landing phase, but Musk isn’t deterred.

Starship is designed to transport astronauts to the moon and many more humans to other worlds like Mars, where Musk hopes humanity will expand to become a “multiplanetary species.”

SpaceX won the massive NASA contract by bidding $2.9 billion for the job, beating out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Alabama-based military and space contractor Dynetics.

According to a statement from NASA, Artemis astronauts won’t be riding Starship all the way from the Earth to the lunar surface, at least not to start. Instead, a quartet of astronauts will launch aboard NASA’s long-delayed Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft on a multiday trip to lunar orbit. NASA is planning to build a small space station called the Lunar Gateway in orbit around the moon that’ll serve as a staging outpost for trips to the moon itself.

In lunar orbit, astronauts will transfer to a waiting Starship for the trip to the surface, a period of exploration followed by a return to lunar orbit and then back home on Orion.

In a press conference following the announcement, NASA’s human landing system chief, Lisa Watkins-Morgan, also revealed that SpaceX will need to perform an uncrewed test landing on the moon before taking astronauts there. This is in line with the approach taken with the company’s Crew Dragon that took astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time last year.

NASA had hoped to make awards to two companies in order to make the process competitive, but the agency had the funding for only one, making SpaceX’s low bid attractive.

SpaceX is also further along in the development process than any other company and has long intended to send Starship to the moon and Mars, with or without NASA’s support.

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First published on April 16, 2021 at 1:08 p.m. PT.

On Monday, NASA notched up a win for space exploration with a successful flight of its Mars helicopter Ingenuity. The triumphant first powered, controlled flight on another planet had space fans celebrating. Google got in on the action with a search page Easter egg.

If you type “Ingenuity NASA” into Google search, a little orange-colored animated version of Ingenuity appears on the right side of the screen, rotors whirling. Click on it and the surface of Mars appears at the bottom of the screen. The little chopper buzzes around on top of the search results, all of which have a rosy hue.

NASA pointed out the fun on Twitter. The Easter egg appears to be working in most browsers, both mobile and desktop.

Do you like fun things? Type “Ingenuity NASA” in a @Google search for a #MarsHelicopter surprise. 🚁 pic.twitter.com/9EK8qdraLC

— NASA (@NASA) April 19, 2021
Google shared a GIF of the animated Ingenuity. “Ten vertical feet for a helicopter, one giant leap for space exploration,” the company tweeted. “Congrats NASA Mars Helicopter on an amazing first flight!”

Ten vertical feet for a helicopter, one giant leap for space exploration. Congrats @NASA #MarsHelicopter on an amazing first flight! https://t.co/z4eNcema10 pic.twitter.com/z0oxvNNbKv

— Google (@Google) April 19, 2021
The actual mini-chopper hovered for less than a minute, but you can let the Google version do its thing for as long as you like.

NASA’s small but ambitious experimental helicopter has proven that flight in the thin atmosphere of Mars is possible. The Google Ingenuity doppelganger taking flight in the nonexistent atmosphere of your browser is a lovely way to celebrate the occasion back on Earth.

Follow CNET’s 2021 Space Calendar to stay up to date with all the latest space news this year. You can even add it to your own Google Calendar. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will take on its most dramatic mission yet when it launches a lunar lander to the moon in 2023.

Pittsburgh-based space robotics startup Astrobotic announced Tuesday it had selected Elon Musk’s rocket-launching company to boost its Griffin lander, which will carry NASA’s water-hunting Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (Viper) toward the lunar south pole.

Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful SpaceX rocket. It’s basically just three of the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, but the configuration has only flown three times, most recently in June of 2019.

Falcon Heavy is probably best known for its debut flight that sent Elon Musk’s red Tesla on its way to the red planet. SpaceX plans to use its next-generation Starship for heavy lifting in the future, including to fly a group of space tourists on a trip around the moon, also in 2023.

However, Starship is still in development, and early prototypes have only flown to an altitude of 6 miles (10 kilometers) and have yet to stick the landing.

“Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 (GM1) solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the Moon. SpaceX has the team, vehicle and facilities to make this happen,” Astrobotic mission director Daniel Gillies said in a statement.

The key word there is “proven,” meaning that unlike Starship, Falcon Heavy has already managed to deliver payloads to space.

After Falcon Heavy lifts Griffin beyond Earth’s gravity well and places it on a trajectory to the moon, the lander will set down on the lunar surface and allow Viper to roll down ramps and on to the regolith where it will probe for water ice on the surface and below.

“Gaining a better learning of resources on the moon is critical to advancing humanity’s reach beyond Earth,” said Stephanie Bednarek, SpaceX senior director of commercial sales.

Astrobotic was initially spun out of Carnegie Mellon University and was a competitor in the Google Lunar XPrize at one point.

The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Astrobotic is also slated to send its smaller Peregrine lander to the near side of the moon later this year under the CLPS banner. That craft is set to fly on the maiden voyage of the United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Both lunar landers will launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

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