Fifty years ago on Wednesday, the first humans to walk on the moon splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
NASA is itching to launch astronauts back to the moon, with an immediate goal of putting boots on the lunar surface in 2024 with its Artemis program. But to accomplish that, the agency may wind up turning to private rocket developers like SpaceX.
Artemis isn't meant to repeat the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, NASA wants to send cargo and supplies to the lunar surface, build up a permanent base there, and start looking for ice. Hundreds of millions of tons of water exist on the moon, and that resource can be mined, melted, turned into air, and split into rocket fuel to power voyages to Mars.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is sending signals back to the Trump administration and NASA in kind.
'It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can'
This month, Time's Jeffrey Kluger interviewed Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder, for "CBS Sunday Morning." During that conversation, Musk suggested his company might attempt an uncrewed lunar landing before the end of 2021. SpaceX would ostensibly pull off this feat using Starship, a launch system it's developing to transport people to the moon and Mars.
"This is going to sound pretty crazy, but I think we could land on the moon in less than two years. Certainly with an uncrewed vehicle I believe we could land on the moon in two years," Musk said. "So then maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew."
Musk added that executing a private mission might be easier than trying to persuade skeptics within NASA to partner with SpaceX in the development of its Starship system — and using taxpayer dollars for it.
"It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can," he said, adding: "'Hey, look. Here's a picture of landing there right now!' That might be the better way to do it."
NASA may turn to SpaceX if the company can pull off a lunar landing
We recently asked Jeff DeWit, NASA's chief financial officer, about Musk's statements for an upcoming episode of "Business Insider Today," a top daily news show on Facebook.
DeWit, who's in charge of helping the agency make the most cost-effective decisions, said he thought that the odds of SpaceX pulling off a private lunar landing with Starship before NASA can return there "are slim," but he did not rule out the possibility of a NASA-SpaceX partnership on a moon mission. In fact, he underscored the possibility.
"More power to him. I hope he does it," DeWit said of Musk. "If he can do it, we'll partner with them, and we'll get there faster."
He added: "This isn't about us doing it — it's about America doing it. He's [got] an American company. I'd love to partner with him and get that done."
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment about DeWit's statements.
DeWit also said NASA would "love to bring along" any commercial companies into the Artemis program that could help the agency achieve its goals. Though he named traditional aerospace companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, DeWit spoke most frequently about SpaceX and Blue Origin and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who in May debuted a lunar-landing spacecraft concept called Blue Moon.
"The fact that Elon Musk is out working for this goal is great," DeWit said. "The fact that Jeff Bezos is out there working for this goal is great."
Starhopper is not designed to fly to space. However, Musk said a larger prototype, called Starship Mark 1, could fly from Texas or Florida in two to three months and reach orbit by the end of the year.