SpaceX lunar lander
Artist’s rendering of the SpaceX lunar lander. Courtesy SpaceX

Los Angeles-based aerospace company SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract Friday to shuttle astronauts to and from the surface of the Moon as part of NASA’s ambitious Artemis program.

Artemis is a multi-phased project that includes the creation of a “Gateway” base orbiting the Moon, from which astronauts can be shuttled to and from the lunar surface. It is envisioned as the first step in creating a lunar outpost of sorts, with the future development of habitable spaces on the surface and becoming a possible stopping point for crewed missions to Mars.

NASA awarded the contract to SpaceX for development of its “human landing system” that will act as the shuttle between the Moon and the lunar orbit during an initial demonstration project. That demonstration will involve four astronauts who will travel to lunar orbit from Earth on a NASA-developed spacecraft known as Orion. Two of them will then shuttle to the lunar surface on the SpaceX Starship lander — including the first woman to ever land on the Moon.

“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed demonstration mission to the surface of the Moon in the 21st century as the agency takes a step forward for women’s equality and long-term deep space exploration,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate. “This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the solar system, including Mars.”

The two astronauts shuttled to the moon are envisioned to spend approximately one week on the surface before the SpaceX lander returns them to the orbiting base for the return trip to Earth.

The human landing system, known as Starship and powered by SpaceX’s Raptor engines, will be equipped with “a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks.”

“The Starship architecture is intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars and other destinations,” according to NASA.

SpaceX’s development of the Starship craft has grabbed headlines in recent months for spectacular explosions during test flights in Texas.

The announcement is the start of a hectic few weeks for SpaceX, which next Thursday is scheduled to launch four more astronauts to the International Space Station using one of its Dragon spacecraft. About a week later, the four- astronaut crew that SpaceX launched to the station aboard a Dragon in November will make its return flight to Earth.

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