NASA has expanded SpaceX’s role in the Artemis program and has selected the company’s Starship lunar lander to ferry the second batch of astronauts to the Moon. If you’ll recall, the agency picked SpaceX’s human landing system for Artemis 3, which will take humanity back to the Moon decades after the last Apollo mission.
Earlier this year, NASA announced that it was accepting new lunar lander proposals for use beyond Artemis 3 to ensure “redundancy in services.” While SpaceX wasn’t allowed to participate, the agency did say that it was planning to exercise an option under their existing contract and was asking the company to modify its landing system to meet a new requirement. That is, for its lander to have the capability to take human spacefarers from the Gateway station, which has yet to be installed in the lunar orbit, to the Moon itself. NASA can then use this upgraded lander for future missions, as humanity attempts to establish a long-term presence on the Moon.
NASA says in its announcement:
“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.”
SpaceX’s original contract with NASA was worth $2.9 billion, but this modification will add $1.15 billion to the total. The company’s Starship lunar lander is expected to take astronauts to the Moon for the first time in 2025. However, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin admitted in August that the agency is expecting Artemis 3’s launch date to slip to 2026. Based on his statement, NASA is anticipating delays related to the development of the human landing system and its next generation spacesuits. NASA’s Artemis 4 mission, which will take four more astronauts to the Moon, will take flight in 2027 at the earliest.
For now, we’re still waiting for updates on the Orion vehicle after the successful Artemis 1 launch on November 16th. You can track the spacecraft’s location by following its official Twitter account, which frequently posts about its latest distance from Earth and from the Moon.