SpaceX could disrupt NASA plan to return humans to the moon

NASA has issued to private industry what it calls a “Phase A Offering” for ideas for a lunar landing system that will return humans to the moon’s surface in or about 2028, according to Ars Technica.

NASA’s lunar lander concept is a three-stage vehicle that would depart from and return to the Lunar Gateway. The stages would include a transfer vehicle to take astronauts to low lunar orbit, a descent stage that would take them to the lunar surface, and an ascent stage that would return the astronauts to lunar orbit. The ascent stage would dock with the transfer vehicle that would then return to the Gateway.

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In NASA’s current lunar program, the development contracts would be on a fixed-price basis and not cost plus, as has traditionally been the case for such large projects. The lunar lander program would be similar to the Commercial Crew program slated to return American astronauts to low Earth orbit on American commercial vehicles this year. The private companies that are awarded contracts will be expected to kick in 20 percent of the cost.

Various aerospace companies, including the traditional ones such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the new upstarts such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, and the even newer upstarts such as Moon Express and Astrobotic, will soon begin work on their designs. However, developments taking place in Boca Chica, Texas might disrupt NASA’s plans for returning to the moon and provide both an opportunity and a politically difficult decision.

SpaceX is building a prototype of a rocket ship designed to fly humans and cargo to deep space, called “Starhopper.” Starhopper will fly to increasingly higher altitudes and then land in order to test both launch and landing systems. The gleaming, stainless steel rocket is supposed to lead to a two-stage spaceship, formally known as the Big Falcon Rocket, which will consist of a first stage called “Super Heavy” and a second stage called “Starship.” Starship, after topping off fuel in low Earth orbit, will fly to the moon and Mars.

Surprisingly, Starship is not a three-stage vehicle, but a single-stage one. Moreover, it doesn’t need the Lunar Gateway to reach the moon, though the cis-lunar facility might prove useful to operate as a staging area for a reusable lunar lander. 

SpaceX founder Elon Musk anticipates Super Heavy/Starship being available long before 2028. Even if one tacks on a few years to Musk’s admittedly optimistic timeline of 2022-24, the spaceship being developed by SpaceX promises to disrupt NASA’s carefully crafted plans for developing an Earth-moon transportation system.  Musk’s rocket promises to take people and cargo directly from Earth to the moon, with no stops at any Gateway.

SpaceX is shooting for the moon, as Ars Technica previously reported. The company has already contracted with a Japanese billionaire to take Starship with a passenger manifest of artists around the moon as early as 2023. The next step would be a lunar orbit mission or even a lunar landing.

NASA may well be given a chance to send people to the lunar surface earlier than 2028 without having to build the Gateway. Ars Technica’s Eric Berger tweeted that the SpaceX rocket is not being “baked into” the return to the moon architecture. The space agency does not believe that it is “real.” Nevertheless, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineFrom Apollo 11 to Artemis: This time when we go back to the moon, we are going to stay Trump meets with Apollo 11 astronauts to mark moon landing anniversary Trump's NASA administrator talks efforts to return to Moon MORE, a canny former politician, has to know what a potential disruption to the space agency’s plans the SpaceX rocket represents.

Musk, for his part, should bid for the NASA lunar lander contract. He would be able to present a vehicle that encompasses all three proposed stages into one. SpaceX could use all the development money it can get to help with the big rocket ship.

If SpaceX can take people and cargo directly to and from the moon, does NASA need to build the Gateway at all? The answer to that question should be illuminating.

Mark 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.”