NASA says SpaceX wins $2.9 billion contract for moon spacecraft

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — NASA said on Friday it has awarded billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft to fly astronauts to the moon, picking it over Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc.

The bid by Tesla Inc chief Musk beat one from Amazon.com Inc’s founder Jeff Bezos, who had partnered with Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp and Draper. Bezos also owns the Washington Post.

The U.S. space agency made the announcement in a videoconference.

“We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator. “This is an incredible time to be involved in human exploration, for all humanity.”

NASA said it would require a test flight to the moon before humans make the flight.

“In addition, NASA is requiring a test flight to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission,” NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.

NASA officials said a moon mission could take place as soon as 2024, and that they’re planning for recurring missions.

The NASA announcement added to an extraordinary run for Musk, who is one of the world’s richest people thanks to his 22% stake in electric car maker Tesla Inc.

Tesla has become the world’s most-valuable automaker, with a market capitalization of $702 billion, far surpassing the auto industry’s giants. Musk has become a one-person technology conglomerate, launching or controlling companies pursuing space flight, electric cars, neural implants and subterranean tunnel boring.

NASA’s decision was a setback for Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and one of the world’s richest people, who is now more focused on his space venture after having announced in February he would step down as Amazon CEO.

The contract was seen by Bezos and other executives as vital to Blue Origin establishing itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting the venture on the road to turning a profit, Reuters had reported in February.

SpaceX announced on Wednesday it had raised about $1.16 billion in equity financing.

Musk has outlined an ambitious agenda for SpaceX and its reusable rockets, including landing humans on Mars. But in the near term, SpaceX’s main business has been launching satellites for Musk’s Starlink internet venture, and other satellites and space cargo.

Unlike the Apollo lunar landings from 1969 to 1972, NASA now is gearing up for a long-term presence on the moon that it envisions as a steppingstone to an even more ambitious plan to send astronauts to reach Mars. NASA is leaning heavily on private companies built around shared visions for space exploration.

NASA in December designated 18 astronauts for possible participation in planned NASA missions to return to the moon’s surface, with a target date of 2024.

An uncrewed SpaceX Starship prototype rocket failed to land safely on March 30 after a test launch from Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship was one in a series of prototypes for the heavy-lift rocket being developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars. A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chris Reese, Nick Zieminski and Ramakrishnan M.)

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