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Who will be first on the moon? NASA or SpaceX?

NASA rocket
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NASA rocket moon space

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of and an aerospace company called Blue Origin, recently announced his plan to return humans to the moon at the International Astronautical Conference. Blue Origin would serve as the prime contractor, leading a coalition of old-line aerospace companies, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper Industries, to develop a three-stage lunar lander. The proposal constitutes Blue Origin’s bid for a lander contract for NASA’s Artemis return-to-the-moon program.

Later, at the same conference, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell revealed her company’s plan to return to the moon. SpaceX’s plans revolve around the Starship rocket, a massive spacecraft being built both at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, south Texas, and at the Kennedy Space Center. Shotwell laid out an aggressive timeline that included the first orbital flight within a year, an un-crewed landing on the lunar surface in 2022, a trip around the moon in 2023 and a crewed lunar landing in 2024. Ironically, the 2024 date is the same as NASA’s plan to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface. SpaceX considers the dates “aspirational.”

Both proposals constitute separate approaches to returning humans to the moon. Blue Origin is aligning its idea to NASA’s stated needs in an effort to garner a space agency contract. The lander it is developing would be divided into transfer, descent and ascent stages that would use the Lunar Orbit Gateway, a space station NASA proposes to build near the moon, as a staging point.

The Blue Origin team is not the only one that will bid for a NASA lunar lander contract. Boeing is putting together a team that includes Houston-based Intuitive Machines. SpaceX may bid on the contract as well.

SpaceX, though it would be happy to take NASA’s money, is not making its plan dependent on the space agency. Elon Musk’s company is prepared to go it alone if necessary. The Starship would launch on top of a first stage called the Super Heavy. After topping off fuel in low Earth orbit, the monster rocket would blast its way onto a trajectory to the moon. The Starship would not need the Gateway for anything. It goes to the lunar surface directly.

Both proposals have a roadblock in the form of money. The NASA Artemis effort needs about $20 billion or so extra to make the 2024 deadline, including $1.6 billion for the current fiscal year. However, while Senate appropriators have been forthcoming with some extra money, the House is a different matter.

During a recent hearing, the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), cast doubt that the date of the next moon landing should be brought up to 2024 from the original 2028. Among other objections, Serrano suggested that the 2024 date is politically motivated, giving President Donald Trump a victory with which to ring out a hypothetical second term.

SpaceX, unless it makes a deal with NASA, has the daunting task of landing humans on the moon with private funding. Elon Musk has made a deal with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a trip around the moon for an undisclosed amount of money. Musk hopes that the satellite internet constellation called Starlink that he is launching will become a money-making machine that will fund his other space ambitions, including voyages to the moon and Mars.

A lot of things have to go right for anyone, SpaceX or NASA, to land on the moon in 2024. However, the world has the happy prospect of a new kind of space race in the early 2020s, not between two super powers, but a public versus private variety.

If NASA wins, the space agency will have proven that it has recovered the right stuff that it seemed to have lost in the years after Apollo, with the help of international and commercial partners.

If SpaceX succeeds with an entirely private lunar voyage, it will have created a new paradigm suggesting that private companies can explore space with only minimal input from the government.

Whoever gets to the moon first, in whatever way, America and the rest of the world will be the winner, as well.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags blue origin Blue Origin Boeing Donald Trump Elon Musk Elon Musk Jeff Bezos Jose Serrano Lockheed Martin moon landing NASA Northrop Grumman outer space Space tourism SpaceX SpaceX

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