In a blockbuster, NASA announced on Friday the selection of SpaceX and the Starship lunar lander concept (“Moonship”?) as the sole human lunar landing system of the Artemis program. This comes after a year-long competitive bidding process between SpaceX, the Blue Origin-led national team, and Dynetics for the Human Landing system.
The selection of SpaceX as a sole provider for this crucial service can be seen in several ways. First, the selection of SpaceX can be seen as purely a cost-saving matter. SpaceX is guaranteed under the contract $2.89 billion for the cost of development and two flights of the landing system. This is roughly half of Dynetics cost-analysis, and a fourth of the National Team. This amount is also roughly what NASA spends per annum for the SLS program, which is celebrating its tenth year.
This selection also shows that NASA has grown comfortable working with SpaceX in their process. These kinds of contracts would usually be given to one of the much larger and more established aerospace and defense giants. However, SpaceX has proven time and again that they have an agility as a company to address new issues quickly and move on with their iterative process.
By selecting Starship in particular, NASA is selecting a spacecraft that will most likely launch on its test orbital flight within the next year. Though the derivative vehicle SpaceX will be providing will be quite different in use from the Starship prototypes SpaceX occasionally lands in Boca Chica, Texas, it will still have much of the same form, and SpaceX is gaining valuable experience with the dynamics of their new Raptor engines. Most of the expensive part of the development of the program to orbital flights is done. NASA is essentially getting a bargain.
However, this is not how Congress, the purse-holders of the American government, typically like to see these kinds of contracts awarded. The standard for most NASA programs has been decentralization and spreading the money made by congressional districts across the country. They are also interested in making sure competition wins out. With SpaceX being selected as sole provider, Congress is more likely to re-examine NASA’s funding. When NASA proposed a budget of $3.3 billion to achieve a Moon landing by 2024, as proposed by the previous presidential administration, Congress passed only $850 million in funding. They may now be forced to re-examine that number in order to bring more competition into the race back to the Moon.