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Is NASA’s new moon rocket ready to take on Elon Musk?

the first core stage for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.
NASA
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What does the future hold for the $17 billion Moon rocket that NASA is finally bringing to the launch pad?

Today, the US space agency is issuing an update on Artemis, its effort to put the next generation of US astronauts on the Moon. Next month, engineers will prep the Boeing-built Space Launch System, a 98-meter-tall launch vehicle more powerful than the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo years, for a final dress rehearsal. Then, they’ll set the date for an uncrewed mission to the Moon later this year, known as Artemis 1.

That mission, originally expected in 2020 and now billions of dollars over budget (pdf), is aimed to prove out the SLS and its space capsule, Orion, before the first crewed mission orbits the Moon sometime in 2023.  A third mission with a goal of putting a landing party in orbit around the Moon could happen in 2025.

Still, after more than a decade of work—the rocket emerged as part of the Bush administration’s Constellation program—it’s not clear what SLS will be used for after these three flights. Its per-launch cost is thought to be on the order of a billion dollars. And it is facing increasing competition from you-know-who: Elon Musk and SpaceX.

If all goes well with the first two Artemis missions, the current plan for the third features astronauts meeting up with a SpaceX Starship in orbit around the Moon, which NASA has chosen as their transport to the lunar surface. Once aboard the privately built vehicle, they will use it to descend to the Moon and return with scientific samples.

The implication should be clear: A Starship capable of flying to the Moon to act as a lunar lander is capable of taking astronauts there in the first place. And if the cost of the vehicle is less than SLS—which seems likely, given that it is designed to be reusable—it will be hard to make the case that any future deep space missions should rely on the Boeing rocket.

SpaceX’s competitors have not missed this trend. Musk is already taking work from SLS. Last year, NASA chose to launch a space probe that will visit the distant moons of Jupiter with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket because the SLS wouldn’t be ready in time. The move saved the space agency $500 million. Following a recent update on Starship, one anonymous lobbyist for SpaceX’s rivals told Politico that his clients are “shitting the bed” at the prospect of Musk’s next-generation rocket reaching orbit this year.

To be sure, rocket development is rarely linear and there is still much for SpaceX to do to make sure Starship gets to orbit. But Boeing and Lockheed have watched as SpaceX first used the Falcon 9 to take over the market for vehicles to launch satellites and space probes, and then used the Dragon capsule to monopolize human spaceflight to orbit in the US. Who’s betting SpaceX can’t do the same for deep space?

A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.

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