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NASA picks SpaceX to build lander for next mission to the moon

NASA announced on Friday that SpaceX would build the next lander to carry astronauts to the moon in a first since the Apollo programme.

The astronauts will include both the first woman and first person of colour, NASA said of its Artemis programme to explore the moon.

The awarded contract is worth $2.89 billion (€2.4 billion). Elon Musk”s SpaceX lander beat landers developed by Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Dynetics, a Huntsville, Alabama, subsidiary of Leidos.

NASA will send four astronauts aboard their Orion spacecraft to enter into the moon’s orbit, then two astronauts will use the SpaceX lander to travel to the moon’s surface.

The astronauts will explore the moon’s surface for a week before travelling back to the spacecraft and travelling back to Earth.

NASA declined to give a specific date for the launch indicating that it would be sometime this decade. It’s the first moon landing since 1972.

“We’ll do it when it’s safe,” said Kathy Lueders, who leads NASA’s human space exploration office.

Astronauts travelling to International Space Station

Four astronauts meanwhile arrived at Kennedy Space Centre for SpaceX’s third crew launch in less than a year. Their flight to the International Space Station is set for next Thursday.

The three men and one woman represent the US, France and Japan: NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide, all experienced space fliers.

This will be SpaceX’s first crew flight to use a recycled Falcon rocket and Dragon crew capsule.

NASA turned to US private companies for crew transport after the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

“Certainly, I think all of them, until we get several years under our belt, should be considered test flights,” Kimbrough, the spacecraft commander, told reporters.

SpaceX uses the same kind of rocket and similar capsules for supply deliveries, and recycles those as well.

McArthur is the only member of the crew who has yet to visit the International Space Station. She previously flew a shuttle to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pesquet, who has been an astronaut for more than 11 years, will launch out of Kennedy for the first time.

“We’re living in the golden age of human spaceflight,” said Pesquet, a former Air France pilot. “Looks like everybody, every country, has a project or a spacecraft.”

The four will replace the SpaceX crew that launched last November – who are to return to Earth at the end of April.

A fresh three-person Soyuz crew, meanwhile, arrived at the space station last week from Kazakhstan, replacing two Russians and one American who travelled back to Earth this weekend.

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