The fixed-price contract is a major vote of confidence for Elon Musk’s rocket company, as the space agency is placing a large amount of responsibility for its cornerstone human spaceflight program, known as Artemis, on SpaceX.
That vehicle, called Starship, is also the linchpin of Musk’s personal goal of landing the first humans on Mars. Test flights of early Starship prototypes have all ended in explosions thus far, but the company is rapidly building new test vehicles.
Last year, NASA announced three different contracts for lunar lander development, which were awarded to SpaceX and Blue Origin’s “National Team,” with the expectation that the cotmpanies would each work to bring operational vehicles to fruition and compete with each other on price and technology.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s Human Landing System or HLS program manager, said during a press call Friday that NASA had “supported each partner, providing design support analysis, subject matter experts and testing” to all those contractors during that phase.
Watson-Morgan added that NASA will continue to provide close oversight as SpaceX continues its development, “ensuring that this system will be safe for our astronauts.”
Boeing is building another key element for the Artemis program: The Space Launch System or SLS, a gargantuan rocket designed to carry the Orion crew capsule to the moon.
That’s the rocket that will carry astronauts to the moon’s orbit, and then the crew will transfer to the Gateway space station, and from there, Starship will carry the astronauts to the moon’s surface, according to Watson-Morgan.
NASA said SpaceX will also be required to conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission, landing Starship on the moon, before astronauts will fly onboard.
The space agency confirmed price was a major factor in its decision to move forward with one contractor.
But in recent years, the company has worked hand-in-hand with NASA on historic accomplishments, most notably crewed spaceflights on SpaceX’s Dragon vehicles, which began last year and have carried astronauts on two flights to the Internationaol Space Station, with a third planned for next week. The Crew Dragon ushered in the return of human spaceflight from US soil for the first time since 2011.
SpaceX was also previously selected to build another version of Dragon to carry cargo to Stargate, the space station NASA plans to put in orbit around the moon to support a future moon base where astronauts can live and work for extended periods of time.
Correction: An earlier version of this headline incorrectly stated the amount of the contract awarded to SpaceX.