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NASA chose SpaceX to send America's next astronauts to the moon, a first since 1972, the space agency said on Friday, granting Elon Musk's company a major victory.
The $ 2,9 billion contract is for the Starship prototype spacecraft, which is being tested at a SpaceX site in Texas.
"Today, I am very excited, and we are all very excited to announce that we have awarded SpaceX the development of our moon landing system," said Lisa Watson-Morgan, head of this program at NASA.
SpaceX beat Dynetics and the company Blue Origin, by Jeff Bezos, and becomes the sole supplier of the system, a break from the past, because NASA often chose several companies in the event of failure of one of them.
According to industry analysts, this decision consolidates the company of Elon Musk, created in 2002 with the aim of conquering Mars, in its place of privileged partner of NASA in the private sector.
Last year, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully send a team aboard the International Space Station, giving Americans back the ability to accomplish this feat, for the first time since the end of the space shuttle program. " Shuttle ".
SpaceX showcased its reusable Starship spacecraft, designed to carry large crews and large cargoes for long space trips, and which can land upright.
Prototypes of the rocket are currently being tested in Texas, but the four attempted flights have so far all ended in explosions.
As part of the Artemis program, which aims to send men back to the Moon, NASA wants to use the heavy SLS (Space Launch System) rocket to launch four astronauts aboard an Orion capsule, which will then dock at a station lunar orbital called Gateway.
The Starship rocket would wait, ready to receive two crew members for the final leg of the journey to the moon's surface.
The idea is for the Gateway station to act as a go-between, but for the initial mission Orion could dock directly to Starship, Watson-Morgan said.
The astronauts would then spend a week on the moon, before boarding the Starship rocket to return to lunar orbit, and return to Earth aboard Orion.
At the same time, SpaceX aims to combine its Starship spacecraft with its Super Heavy rocket, in order to create a machine 120 meters high, the most powerful launch vehicle ever deployed.
Man set foot on the moon for the last time in 1972, with the Apollo program.
NASA wants to return there, and establish a lasting presence with a lunar space station, to test new technologies that will pave the way for a crewed mission to Mars.
In 2019, then vice president Mike Pence challenged NASA to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, but that timeline is likely to be relaxed under Joe Biden's presidency. .
The administration of the Democratic president also announced a new objective, that of sending the first person from an ethnic minority to the moon as part of the Artemis program.