After securing yet another contract, SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are now scheduled to launch at least six commercial Moon landers over the next two and a half years.
On May 20th, rocket startup Firefly Aerospace announced that it had selected a SpaceX Falcon 9 to launch its first Blue Ghost Moon lander as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. While Firefly is preparing to launch its own Alpha rocket for the first time later this year, a rocket that is technically capable of launching Blue Ghost with the help of an electric ‘space tug,’ the company is apparently prioritizing maximum payload delivery and on-time performance.
As a result, Firefly has contracted with a direct competitor to launch its first Moon lander, becoming the sixth company to select SpaceX’s Falcon rockets for that purpose.
Thanks to Firefly’s decision to use Falcon 9 instead of Alpha, the first Blue Ghost spacecraft should be able to deliver up to 150 kg (330 lb) of NASA payloads to the lunar surface – three times more than Alpha would allow. That makes Firefly the sixth Moon-bound company to be won over by the unique combination of affordability and performance offered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
The first of those missions – Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft – already flew in early 2020 as part of a unique rideshare with a commercial geostationary communications satellite. Unfortunately, the lander suffered an avionics failure just a few minutes before touchdown, causing Beresheet to impact the Moon far too quickly. While it’s no longer clear if that’s still the case, Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost lander may borrow significantly from Beresheet and the lessons Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) learned from the mission’s successes and failures. At the same time, IAI is also working on its own follow-up Moon lander mission.
As part of NASA’s CLPS program, SpaceX has won launch contracts for five of the six landers announced, one of which went to ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. One of those six landers wound up canceling their contract due to corporate issues, leaving SpaceX with four of five CLPS launch contracts. The company is currently on track to launch two Intuitive Machines Nova-C landers on Falcon 9 rockets in Q1 and Q4 2022, Masten Space System’s XL-1 lander in 2022, Firefly’s first Blue Ghost lander on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2023, and Astrobotics first large Griffin lander – carrying NASA’s VIPER Moon rover – on a Falcon Heavy rocket in Q4 2023.
Outside of NASA, Japanese startup ispace has selected SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to launch its first two commercial Hakuto-R Moon landers, beginning as early as Q4 2022. All told, SpaceX has contracts to launch at least six Moon landers in 2022 and 2023.