How SpaceX’s Starship became NASA’s ace in the hole to get to the moon by 2024
NASA has announced the three commercial teams that have been slated to build machines that will return human beings to the moon in four years. They are Dynetics, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Of the three, the proposal by SpaceX has the most potential to land that next man and first woman on the moon by 2024.
SpaceX’s entry into the commercial race to land on the moon is a modified version of the Starship, the massive rocket being developed in Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship, which would be launched into Earth orbit by an even bigger rocket called the SuperHeavy, is SpaceX’s vehicle to build a settlement on Mars. Once in Earth orbit, it would be refueled by another Starship configured as a tanker before heading to the Red Planet. The Starship could also fly to the moon and back in a similar manner.
To shoehorn Starship into NASA’s preferred architecture, the “Lunar Starship” would fly without the flaps and heat shield needed to return to Earth. Once it arrives in lunar orbit, the lunar version of the Starship would dock with an Orion that would be delivered by the superheavy-lift Space Launch System. The crew would transfer to the “Lunar Starship” and ride down to the moon’s surface. When the mission is completed, the Starship would lift off, dock with the Orion that had been left in lunar orbit and transfer the crew. The astronauts would then ride Orion back to Earth.
The Starship is NASA’s “ace in the hole” for landing people on the moon by 2024 because in its original configuration it needs neither the Orion nor the Space Launch System to take people and cargo to and from the lunar surface. That fact is important when one considers how expensive and how late the Space Launch System has become. The latest development is the revelation that the SLS may have leaky fuel tanks.
One can imagine a scenario in which the Space Launch System continues to experience mounting costs and extended delays, so much so that it places the 2024 return to the moon date in jeopardy.
At the same time, one can imagine SpaceX making progress on the “Lunar Starship.” Part of the company’s bid for the lunar lander is to demonstrate in-orbit refueling and then to land the Starship on the moon without a crew. The Starship would also be able to deliver 100 tons of cargo along with the astronauts.
Under the above scenario, NASA may be faced with an uncomfortable decision if it still means to land on the moon by 2024. It may be forced to use the Starship without the addition of the Orion and Space Launch System.
The first alternative would be to launch directly from Earth to the moon and then back as SpaceX originally planned. The direct flight to the moon would require that SpaceX add back the heat shield, flaps and anything else necessary to land a Starship on Earth.
NASA may find that certifying a new spacecraft for both a human launch and landing to be too rich for its blood. The space agency has another alternative to use the Starship to fulfill its mission to land on the moon by 2024.
The idea would be to launch the Starship without a crew into low Earth orbit. Then, as planned, use another Starship to top off its tanks. Then the crew blasts off in a Crewed Dragon, docks with the Starship and transfers to it. The astronauts take the Starship directly to the moon and make world history. Afterwards, the crew takes the Starship back to Earth orbit, transfers into a waiting Crewed Dragon and returns home to universal acclaim.
In the meantime, three private groups will vie to create the machine that will take Americans back to the moon, the first time since the flight of Apollo 17 in 1972. The public-private partnership faces many obstacles, some technical, some political. Congress must fully fund the effort, even in the teeth of the coronavirus pandemic. But at the end of the effort will come a day in human history that will be remembered forever, one that will redeem the 21st century, if we have the will and heart to seize it.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.
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