NASA suspends its controversial lunar lander project with SpaceX

NASA has put on hold the lunar lander program, the contract of which was won by SpaceX, after claims from two rival companies that were unsuccessful.

It was to be almost a formality, one more step in the course of the Artemis program, which prepares the return of astronauts to the Moon in 2024. But the process of selecting the lander that will be responsible for transporting the astronauts to the surface of the natural satellite of the Earth has just been suspended, after the complaint of the two candidate companies which were not selected.

The American space agency (Nasa) indeed announced this weekend a break in this segment of the space program, following disagreements that were reported by the companies Blue Origin and Dynetics to the Government Accountability Office, the equivalent of the Court of Auditors in the United States. The two plaintiffs dispute the conditions under which NASA chose SpaceX, and only SpaceX.

NASA has withheld just one lunar lander, much to the chagrin of SpaceX rivals. // Source: Lee Stonehouse

One or two moon landers?

Recall of facts. As part of the Artemis program, NASA plans to rely on private service providers to carry out this return to the Moon. Among the contracts that are proposed is that of a lander responsible for depositing crews on the ground. A call for applications was launched in 2019 and three companies were to be decided: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics. They were announced April 30, 2020.

The outcome of this selection procedure occurs in mid-April: NASA announces a single winner, SpaceX. The American company wins a very important contract, worth $ 2.9 billion, to ensure that the Starship – its new launcher, under development, which will succeed the Falcon Heavy and the Falcon 9 – be ready for such a mission.

This is where things go wrong. NASA explained that its choice was based on various parameters, including the budgetary criterion. The space agency said it could select up to two winners, depending on the quality of the proposed projects. However, the United States Congress paid her only $ 850 million of the $ 3.3 billion she was asking for to have two moon landers.

Given these financial constraints, NASA has lowered its objectives and retained a single launcher: that of SpaceX. However, for Blue Origin and Dynetics, NASA should have reassessed its call for tenders when it knew that it would not have the necessary funds to retain two programs. The two unsuccessful candidates could then have revised their offer to try to align with SpaceX.

« NASA moved the goalposts at the last minute », so complained Blue Origin, considering that the conditions of the selection have been changed without warning, and without leaving time for the challengers to adapt. She also warned NASA, arguing that it puts ” America’s return to the moon in danger “, By depriving yourself of at least one other private service provider.

SN 10 test. // Source: SpaceX

The administrative interruption of NASA’s activities around the future lunar lander should, on the side of SpaceX, have no negative impact in the short term. The company will in any case continue its aerial tests, in particular to finally succeed in putting down its prototypes correctly. Several models have been used in recent months, but failed to find the right formula.

However, this could change with the SN15 test, which will succeed SN11 (the SN12, SN13 and SN14 were not used in this context, but were used for engineering tests). According to Elon Musk, SN15 represents a significant leap forward in the design of the Starship, with “ hundreds of structural, avionics, software and engine improvements “. It remains to make him pass his baptism of fire.

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