NASA plans to blast off the most powerful moon rocket since Apollo moon landings early next year.
The agency on Tuesday awarded United Launch Alliance $2.6 billion in initial funding to develop a new heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, to haul payloads and astronauts to the moon and Mars by 2026. ULA will compete with rival SpaceX for a $3.8 billion NASA contract to develop a similar system, known as the Space Launch System.
The launcher could be ready to blast off as early as February 2019. It would be the first stage of a mission to land humans on the moon, the agency said. The agency must also choose a mission by October 2019 to launch the rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“Our partners know we need to accelerate our journey to Mars, and we are certainly partnering with them to get us there as quickly as possible,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden. “We are already seeing commercial partners on the successful new commercial crew program making tremendous progress and are poised to do the same with the Space Launch System program. This award marks a vital step toward giving American entrepreneurs a lower-cost rocket that can transport astronauts to the Moon and finally Mars.”
But both rockets are far from production ready.
On Tuesday, ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said it would start a phase of work called Technology Readiness Review later this year to determine whether to build the rocket from scratch or save billions of dollars by buying a service from SpaceX.
SpaceX has said it won’t build a rocket built to compete with the SLS if it gets the contract. Boeing has yet to outline its plan for a heavy-lift rocket, said to be at least 10 times bigger than the Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon.
Neither United Launch Alliance nor SpaceX disclosed details of their offers.
SpaceX has spent more than a decade trying to build a rocket that could carry crew to the International Space Station without relying on a Russian rocket. After many setbacks, Elon Musk’s company — which is privately owned — had enough customers to launch the first private manned trip to the station next year.