NASA gives SpaceX a challenge with the moon as a prize
Recently, near the sleepy south Texas beachside town of Boca Chica, a stubby vehicle that looks like a water tank with legs, shining with its stainless-steel hull, rose 20 meters, wreathed in fire and smoke, before it descended back to the ground. The brief flight test of the Starhopper took a few seconds, though it started a grass fire that took a long time to put out. If Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, is right, the short hop is just the beginning of a journey that will take humankind back to the moon, on to Mars — and then beyond.
SpaceX is developing a massive rocket it calls the Starship. Propelled into space by a first stage dubbed the Super Heavy, it promises to change space travel as profoundly as the ocean-going caravel did sea travel. Starship, Musk has boasted, will carry the first colonists to Mars. He has also suggested that the new rocket could land on the moon in two years. Musk has contracted with a wealthy, Japanese businessman to take a crew of artists and writers in a free return voyage around the moon.
The rocket ship would be totally reusable. The Super Heavy first stage would lift the Starship into orbit and then return to its launch site and land, much like the first stage of the Falcon 9 does on a regular basis. The Starship, with refueling, could land on the moon or Mars, taking with it 100 metric tons of passengers, cargo, or a combination of both. The Starship would refuel using local materials mined from either world and then return to Earth. Musk’s proposed lunar surface mission would likely take cargo useful to future moon explorers and an eventual lunar base.
Musk’s rocket ship has caught the imagination of many space enthusiasts. NASA’s Artemis program is built around a super-heavy rocket called the Space Launch System. The SLS is an expendable launch vehicle that has proven expensive to develop and will be costly to operate. Why, say outside space experts, does NASA insist on using the super-expensive super-heavy launcher when it could just partner with SpaceX for far less money and far more capability?
Thus far, NASA has demurred. The space agency is reaching out to the commercial sector, including SpaceX, to build and operate a lunar lander. But the Space Launch System has too many political supporters to scrap just when it is within a couple of years of flying. The SLS may be costly, but it does provide lots of jobs and fat contracts in key congressional districts. Besides, NASA does not think that Starship will ever fly. It is just too incredible a quantum leap in space technology.
Nevertheless, according to Business Insider, Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer, threw down the gauntlet to SpaceX. If SpaceX is able to land a Starship on the lunar surface, the space agency will partner with the company to conduct voyages to the moon on the rocket ship.
Of course, DeWit hastened to add that he thinks that Musk’s chances of pulling off a lunar landing are “slim.”
SpaceX has thus far not responded to the challenge laid down by NASA. However, Elon Musk is nothing if not competitive and is always up for a challenge. If any organization can pull off a private moon landing on the scale that Starship could accomplish, it would be SpaceX, in two years or perhaps a bit longer, considering the nature of space development projects. The company has already pioneered the first commercial partly reusable rocket. The Dragon is taking cargo to and from the International Space Station and will, in due course, do the same service for people. The Falcon Heavy is the first commercial heavy-lift vehicle, also partly reusable.
In other words, it’s game on for Musk. Somehow, one thinks his chances are a little bit better than slim.