SpaceX aims to put a payload on the moon in 2023 with its larger, less active Falcon Heavy rocket. The mission will place a lander constructed by the space startup Astrobotic — itself containing NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), according to a press release posted on Astrobotic's website.
If or when it happens, it will be on the heels of SpaceX's first scheduled lunar landing — since the private aerospace company has also booked missions to fly lunar landers to the moon in 2022 — for both Intuitive Machines and Masten — probably using Falcon 9 rockets. In case you missed it, SpaceX is starting to seem like a moon taxi service.
NASA can use SpaceX as a budgetary shortcut to the moon
The 2023 mission will be crucial for all parties, which means other missions are more likely to be delayed than this one. It represents a critical benchmark for NASA's longer-term Artemis program designed to return humans to the moon, and eventually build a permanent scientific crew — both on the surface and in lunar orbit. But to do this, NASA will need to use locally-gathered resources — amongst which water will become an indispensable one. NASA's VIPER contract was awarded to Astrobotic last year, and the deal involves landing a payload on the moon's south pole — the area destined for NASA's forthcoming crewed Artemis missions. Astrobotic will send its Griffin model lander — which is larger than its Peregrine model — to secure enough space to transport the VIPER. But the larger size (and mass) means SpaceX will have to use its Falcon Heavy vehicle.
NASA wants to put astronauts on the moon again by 2024, but the road to making it a reality is uncertain amid a new administration, which is reconsidering budgets and timelines. But the agency has a way to override budgetary limits to some extent, thanks to private-public partnerships. Both the new Griffin mission and the initially planned Peregrine landing are part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program — created to enlist the private sector to build and ferry lunar landers with NASA.
SpaceX is becoming a moon taxi
This comes on the heels of another contract from NASA to SpaceX, enlisting the latter to launch the former's Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) — both projects critical to the initial stages of the Lunar Gateway, according to a February press release from the agency. The Gateway is designed to enable astronaut missions to construct a sustainable presence during NASA's Artemis missions. After HALO and PPE are assembled on Earth, both projects will liftoff together "no earlier than May 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket," said the February press release. The combined cost of these missions is roughly $331.8 million.
SpaceX is also plans to launch its Crew-2 flight on April 22 using the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft mounted atop a Falcon 9 rocket. This will be the company's second crewed mission since the Crew-1 launch in 2020. With so many launches on its plate (not to mention Starlink), it seems SpaceX is leading the way as a go-to moon taxi not only for NASA, but an increasing number of other, private space companies, like Astrobotic.