Will SpaceX and NASA make 2022 the year of the heavy-lift rocket?
If the stars align right, SpaceX and NASA may make 2022 the year of the heavy-lift rocket. The Starship/Superheavy and the Space Launch System (SLS) are two different launch vehicles, the first pushing the envelope of rocket design, the latter hearkening back to the past. Both are designed to, at long last, open the moon, then Mars, then beyond, to human exploration.
According to Space.com, NASA has announced that it intends to roll out the Space Launch System to launchpad 39B on June 6. The space agency intends to conduct a second wet dress rehearsal on the launch vehicle, which will constitute the steps needed for an actual launch, including the filling then draining of the fuel tanks. If the test is successful, NASA plans to launch the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon as early as August.
When the Starship/Superheavy might launch on its first orbital test flight is unknown. On May 31, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had promised to issue the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), the agency issued another delay, for two weeks. The excuse this time is the need for “ongoing interagency consultations.” Besides environmental considerations, SpaceX must meet safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements before the FAA will sign off on orbital launch tests.
SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell recently opined that the company might be able to launch an orbital test in June or July. Teslarati suggests that June is extremely unrealistic, even before the latest delay of the PEA. July may be possible. August seems more likely, but only if there are no more delays from the FAA and the Starship/Superheavy passes all the ground tests, including cryogenic tank filling and static firing.
Another fly in the ointment has arisen in the form of a lawsuit filed by a number of entities, including the Sierra Club. According to Space.Com, the suit was filed, “against the Texas General Land Office, Texas land commissioner George P. Bush and Cameron County in Texas for closing Boca Chica Beach periodically for SpaceX operations during Starship tests.” The suit claims that the amendment to the Open Beaches Act that allows SpaceX to close the beach violates the Texas state Constitution.
In any case, should the FAA finally grant the authority for SpaceX to start orbital flights, and should a judge not take that authorization away, Elon Musk’s company will finally be able to proceed with tests of its giant rocket ship. Both the SpaceX Starship/Superheavy and the NASA Space Launch System may fly by the end of 2022, perhaps even by the end of summer.
The Artemis 1 mission will be the more ambitious of the two, the SLS will loft an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to the moon. The spacecraft will pass about 62 miles over the surface of the moon before going into a retrograde orbit 40,000 miles above the lunar surface. After six days, the Orion will return to Earth, passing 60 miles over the lunar surface before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off Baja California, if all goes as planned.
The first Starship/Superheavy flight is planned to be more modest. The Superheavy will loft the Starship into low Earth orbit before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship is expected to fly part-way around the Earth before being brought down in the Pacific near the Hawaiian Islands.
Both tests are planned to be followed by others, leading to the day, as early as 2025, when the Orion is expected to dock with the Starship in lunar orbit, transferring two astronauts. Then the Starship would take the first humans from the planet Earth to the lunar surface since 1972 during the mission of Apollo 17.
The Space Launch System was expensive to develop and will be expensive to operate. The SLS is likely the last of the totally expendable rockets that the United States will ever build. Nevertheless, NASA plans on flying the rocket for at least 30 years.
The Starship/Superheavy constitutes a quantum leap in space technology. Each stage of the launch vehicle is designed to land back on Earth, much like the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9, to be refurbished and reused in short order. With refueling, the rocket can deliver 100 metric tons of cargo and passengers to the moon, Mars and beyond. It will be the very first true spaceship.
Two very different rockets, the SLS and the Starship/Superheavy, will restart human deep space exploration.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.