Getting to the moon will happen in stages. The new contract just awarded to SpaceX is for the most critical stage, which has 3 steps: 1. Dropping out of moon orbit to land on the moon, 2. exploring the moon for a week, 3. departing from the moon.
The contract is for one test flight with no one aboard, and one more with astronauts. The rocket is huge (see illustration). SpaceX says they can do this by the 2024 deadline for $3 billion, which seems surprisingly small considering the two billionaires bidding against each other for this contract are each worth well over fifty times that amount, making this something on the order of pocket change for them. The losing bid was more than twice the amount.
The Verge describes the overall journey:
Four astronauts will launch on NASA’s Space Launch System, aboard the Orion spacecraft. From there, two people will then transfer to SpaceX’s lunar lander. They’ll spend about a week exploring the surface of the moon, then get aboard the lander and head back to Orion. SpaceX will have to do an uncrewed flight of the lander before any humans come aboard, though.
On a related note
SpaceX's founder Elon Musk earlier this year became the richest man on earth on the same day inventor Nikola Tesla died 78 years ago. It's particularly poignant because Tesla famously died in poverty, which was his reward for trying to take on the billionaires of his day... and losing. But he well knew, even in his poverty, that his present wasn't as important as the future, saying at one point:
"The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine."
Seems to be working. Now, a car named after him is flying through space, forever, or at last for a very very very long time, and the "cash poor" billionaire who most closely fulfills Tesla's own grand visions for the future has just won the contract to land humans on the moon. Musk is saying that Teslas may become the best-selling cars on earth in the next 18 months, and that the future will remember Tesla as much for AI and robotics as it will for their cars.
All this is fun for me, as I was Tesla fan long before it became cool to know anything about Tesla, and Musk appears to be the closest since Henry Ford (or that aviator dude whatsisname) of a billionaire-type comic-book-style personality who genuinely enjoys exploring and innovating at the absolute cutting edge of technology -- not just making more money to make more money and oppressing workers, crushing competition, and the usual comic-book villain billionaire stuff. In my opinion, Musk makes Larry Ellison (the previous Tony Stark wannabe) look like the capitalist he always was, and his current competitor Bezos-the-robber-baron in comparison looks truly villainesque.
I'm finally excited for America that we're going to the moon. I've long looked at space travel as a distraction from our primary goal of world peace -- it seems to me that, first, we should have world peace, and then we can go into outer space with a clean conscience instead of populating the solar system with the ugly zero-sum games for which humans are famous.
Taking a playful attitude into the solar system
But now that we're going to the moon, well, if we're going to do it, Elon-Musk-style, Tesla-style, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style, is the right way to do it. It means we're taking a playful attitude into the solar system. Whatever else happens, let that playful spirit be the one in which we ascend to the stars, and be that for which the human race is known as a whole, in the end. In other words, it's fitting that this round of moon travel is named after the so-called protector of children, Artemis; may God, the real protector of children, bless us in this endeavor as we head for the stars.