Can SpaceX's Elon Musk help NASA get back to the moon by 2024 after all?

Can SpaceX's Elon Musk help NASA get back to the moon by 2024 after all?
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When then-Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceReplace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump Heritage Foundation names new president MORE announced a deadline of 2024 for American astronauts to return to the moon, the decision was meant to infuse a new sense of urgency in NASA’s latest attempt to return to the moon. However, as Defense One suggests, a couple of developments have cast doubt on whether that deadline is feasible.

First, the NASA inspector general has announced that the lunar crew’s spacesuits will not be ready by 2024. Also, the 100-day delay resulting from the protest filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) by Blue Origin and Dynetics concerning the award to SpaceX for the Human Landing System (HLS) is also placing the 2024 lunar landing in doubt. The GAO eventually found in favor of NASA and SpaceX. NASA duly paid SpaceX a down payment of $300 million for the lunar Starship. But the damage may have been done.

According to the Verge, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosReplace Kamala Harris with William Shatner to get kids excited about space exploration Shatner pushes back on Prince William over space flight comments Shatner says he was struck by 'fragility of this planet' on trip to space MORE has filed suit in federal court challenging NASA’s decision to give SpaceX a sole contract to build the lunar lander. The court has granted a stay on the further development of the lunar lander until Nov. 1, further casting the 2024 moon landing in doubt. Ars Technica suggests the lawsuit is already causing some blowback to Blue Origin, even within the organization.

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Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskPrince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel Democrats' electric vehicle push sparks intense lobbying fight Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism? MORE, who is preparing to send the latest version of the Starship into orbit on top of a Superheavy Rocket, seems to be taking the drama being caused by his rival in stride. The SpaceX CEO took to Twitter and quipped, “If lobbying & lawyers could get u to orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto.”

Musk also made a couple of interesting promises that NASA needs to pay attention to. First, he suggested on Twitter that SpaceX could develop a 21st-century moon suit “if need be” by 2024. Musk also suggested that the lunar Starship would be ready to take Americans back to the moon “probably sooner” than 2024. 

In the meantime, Blue Origin has mounted a social media campaign attacking the SpaceX lunar Starship as too complex and too risky compared to the lunar lander proposed and rejected by NASA. One area of dispute seems to be how many launches of refueling Starships will be needed to take the lunar Starship to the lunar surface and back. According to WccfTech, both Blue Origin and the GAO claims that 14 refueling flights, one launch of an orbital fuel depot, and the lunar Starship itself would be needed. Musk disputes this assertion, claiming between four and eight refueling flights would be needed. Musk went on to suggest that even 16 flights would not be a problem, citing SpaceX’s cadence flying the Falcon 9 multiple times in a short period of time.

Many things must happen in a short time, with or without Musk’s help, for NASA to make the 2024 deadline. The technical problems of building and flying the lunar Starship, creating a lunar surface spacesuit, and making sure that the Orion/Space Launch System stack can fly to lunar orbit and back are serious but not insurmountable. However, all is dependent on the Biden administration and Congress not getting a sudden attack of ADD and getting stingy on funding.

In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if Americans return to the moon in 2025, 2026, or some other future year, instead of in 2024, so long as they return. Marina Koren, writing for the Atlantic, suggests going slower is a good thing, the idea being that slower is safer for the astronauts. “What’s the rush?” she asks.

On the other hand, slower is also riskier because it adds to the possibility of cost overruns and schedule slippages. The International Space Station was over a decade behind schedule and suffered two near-death experiences in the halls of Congress. Fortunately, with the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his allies, the Artemis program enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Koren also offers a little shade in the direction of former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE, repeating the suggestion that the 2024 deadline was politically motivated, the theory being that a return to the moon would prove a capstone on his second term. But if the return to the moon does slip beyond 2024, Trump may have the last laugh. If he runs in 2024 and wins, Trump will still be the president who sees the Artemis astronauts off and welcomes them home. The irony would be delicious to some and bitter gall and wormwood to others.

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,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” 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.