Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. won a NASA contract to develop a system for landing astronauts on the moon, beating out two other bidders, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and a unit of Leidos Holdings Inc.

NASA awarded the US$2.9 billion human-lander contract on Friday after 10 months of development work. SpaceX’s contract covers two lunar landings: A test flight to the surface without crew followed by a trip carrying astronauts.

SpaceX’s plan depends on refining its Starship vehicle and Super Heavy rocket, which are also in development, as a fully integrated lunar landing system. The Starship craft is nearing its fifth test after the previous four suffered mishaps including fires and an explosion.

“We awarded the SpaceX contract given the appropriation we have and what we believe are realistic budgets in future years,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator.

NASA officials said they remain committed to using the Boeing Co. SLS rocket and Lockheed Martin Corp. Orion crew capsule -- both of which enjoy Congressional support despite extensive delays and cost overruns -- to fly astronauts to lunar orbit as part of the Artemis program. NASA will also continue development work on a lunar gateway that orbits the moon, an astronaut way station to and from the moon’s surface.

Deepening Ties

That means SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy rocket won’t carry NASA astronauts from Earth and back as part of the agency’s current plans. The company has articulated ambitious commercial plans for the vehicle, including rides around the moon and to ferry future pioneers to Mars.

SpaceX said in a tweet Friday it was “humbled” to help NASA begin a new era of human space exploration. Musk said in a separate tweet the company was “honored” to be part of the Artemis program.

The lunar-lander contract deepens SpaceX’s increasingly crucial relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which already uses the company’s Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The lunar lander is a key aspect of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

The so-called National Team, led by Blue Origin, also included Lockheed, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Draper, an engineering and avionics firm. Alabama-based Dynetics Inc., which Leidos acquired last year, was the other company that had won a preliminary contract to develop a lander.

Future Contracts

Brett Griffin, a spokesman for the National Team, said the group is “looking to learn more about the selection.” A Leidos representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Those companies, and others, could see future lander contracts. NASA wants multiple providers for future lunar landings “on a regularly recurring basis beyond the initial crewed demonstration mission.”

The U.S. space agency budgeted US$967 million for work by the three teams over 10 months, starting in May 2020. President Donald Trump’s administration tasked NASA with returning astronauts to the moon’s South Pole in 2024. Given NASA’s current funding levels, 2024 is widely seen as a difficult target for an astronaut landing and President Joe Biden may revise that schedule.

On Friday, Jurczyk appeared to soften on that goal, saying there’s “maybe a shot” SpaceX could perform its landing test in 2024.