NASA has announced on November 15 that has awarded a $1.15 Billion contract modification to SpaceX to further develop its Starship Human Landing System (HLS) to meet the agency’s requirements for long-term human exploration of the Moon under the Artemis Program.
With this addition, SpaceX will provide a second crewed landing demonstration mission in 2027 as part of NASA’s Artemis IV Mission.
The “Option B” Contract
Known as “Option B”, the modification follows an original award to SpaceX in April 2021 valued $2.9 Billion, under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) Appendix H Option A contract, covering upgrades to the Starship Lander. NASA previously announced plans to pursue this Option B with SpaceX, promoting at the same time the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) to fund a second company’s Lander Design.
When NASA announced its intent to exercise Option B, it was not clear what second mission Starship would fly. Only last month agency officials said that the Mission would be Artemis IV. Notably, this mission was previously planned by NASA to be dedicated to work on the Lunar Gateway and not include a Moon Landing. The second Lander selected for development under SLD would then fly its demonstration mission no earlier than Artemis V.
“Continuing our collaborative efforts with SpaceX through Option B furthers our resilient plans for regular crewed transportation to the lunar surface and establishing a long-term human presence under Artemis. […] This critical work will help us focus on the development of sustainable, service-based lunar landers anchored to NASA’s requirements for regularly recurring missions to the lunar surface”Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA manager for the HLS Program
The aim of this new work under Option B is to develop and demonstrate a Starship Lunar Lander that meets NASA’s sustaining requirements for missions beyond Artemis III, including docking with Gateway, accommodating four crew members, and delivering more mass to the surface.
The first Award and litigations
NASA initially selected SpaceX to develop a Human Landing System variant of Starship to land the next American Astronauts on the Moon under Artemis III, which will mark humanity’s first return to the Lunar surface in more than 50 years. As part of that contract, SpaceX will also conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission to the Moon before Artemis III: basically, an HLS Starship will be launched, refueled in Low Heart Orbit, and hopefully land on the Moon to demonstrate the system’s capabilities.
The joint works of NASA and SpaceX on the Starship HLS variant were stopped on May 2021 by a protest that the looser companies filled to the GAO. While Dynetics accepted GAO’s decision that gave NASA the green light to proceed and dismissed the looser protests, Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos didn’t.
The company and its owner decided to take the whole case to the US Court of Federal Claims, basically suing NASA and the USA for selecting SpaceX. The decision from the Court only arrived in November 2021, dismissing forever the case and giving Blue Origin and Bezos the wrong.
NASA resumed the work immediately after the Court decision, and it’s still working closely with SpaceX to develop the HLS Starship Variant. Some of the milestones that were completed were shown with some pictures.
SpaceX in the meantime is continuing preparations for the first Orbital Launch Attempt of Starship down in Starbase, Texas. Just two days ago, on Nov. 14, SpaceX conducted a Static Fire Test, firing 14 of the 33 Raptor engines installed on the SuperHeavy Booster, the most ignited in a single test. Elon Musk then tweeted afterward that the test was successful and the Company would soon conduct a 20-second long Engine Test, “possibly one more static fire, then orbital launch attempt.”
Next test is ~20 sec firing with max oxygen fill to test autogenous pressurization, possibly one more static fire, then orbital launch attempt— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 15, 2022
During a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, officials said that the first Starship Orbital Launch Attempt could take place as soon as early December. Of course, delays are possible and almost certain, depending on the outcome of the vehicles’ testing campaign, as well as the “Green Light” from the FAA in form of a Launch License.
NASA is “closely following that upcoming test flight” as one of the milestones in the development of the Lunar Lander version of Starship.