NASA does not require SpaceX to demonstrate that its Starship human landing system can lift off from the lunar surface before using it for the Artemis III mission and the test vehicle will be a “skeleton” of the actual lander. NASA selected SpaceX to build the Artemis III lander preceded by an uncrewed test flight, but NASA’s HLS program manager said today the demonstration did not include liftoff. She also pointed out that Starship is still in the design and development phase with many challenges ahead, not ready to launch as some seem to believe.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, HLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, spoke to NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group this morning with other NASA officials about the recent selection of 13 regions at the pole. lunar south for the landing of Artemis III.
Artemis III will bring humans back to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. NASA currently predicts the landing at the end of 2025, just over three years away.
SpaceX has been developing Starship for several years. Five test flights of second-stage prototypes at an altitude of around 10 kilometers took place between December 2020 and May 2021. The first four ended in flames, but the fifth was successful. The much larger first stage has yet to fly, although “fit checks” of the fully assembled vehicle have taken place at SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that launching Starship into orbit is one of his two main goals this year.
SpaceX plans to use Starship for many purposes – launching satellites into Earth orbit as well as people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The name Starship is used both for the entire vehicle and only for the second stage.
This is the second stage that will go to the Moon.
However, the spacecraft is not designed to fly directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System. Instead, the first stage places it solely in Earth orbit. To go further, it must fill up with propellants in a fuel depot in orbit yet to be built. More ships are needed to deliver propellant to the depot.
Watson-Morgan described the concept of operations for Starship’s Artemis III mission, starting with the launch of the fuel depot, then a number of “thruster aggregation” launches to fill the depot, then the launch of the ship that will go to the moon.
His slide shows four thruster aggregation launches, but that’s not a firm number. “How many? Whatever number is needed is the number of launches,” she said.
SpaceX and NASA are working together to demonstrate in-orbit cryogenic fluid management and “we still have a lot of challenges ahead.”
“You could…maybe get the feeling that their [SpaceX’s] the system is ready to operate. And it’s not yet. We are in design and development. … We are still developing. We are still changing. And we’re going to get smarter, and then we’re going to have an amazing launch and we’re going to have an amazing landing. Lisa Watson Morgan
This landing of two NASA astronauts on Artemis III will be preceded by an uncrewed test scheduled for 2024, but she explained that NASA only requires SpaceX to demonstrate a safe landing. No take off.
“The uncrewed demo is not necessarily planned to be the same Starship you see for the crewed demo. It will be a skeleton because it only needs to land. It doesn’t need to lift , just for clarity. So clearly we want it, but the requirements are for it to land. Lisa Watson-Morgan
The discussion took place within the framework of the scientific investigations which can be carried out on the Artemis III mission. Working with SpaceX and a select group of scientists, NASA chose 13 regions of the Moon’s south pole where the landing could take place. NASA is now seeking input from the wider lunar science community to narrow down the list.
Many factors are at play, especially the lighting conditions, which are quite different from those at the six Apollo landing sites closer to the equator. The South Pole is of great scientific interest and its permanently shaded regions are thought to contain water ice that could be used to support human outposts and for other purposes.
One of the scientists in the audience wondered if the crew would actually be able to descend and return from the surface to do science. Starship is very large and has an elevator to go up and down.
Watson-Morgan offered assurances that it will work. The elevator is multiple fault tolerant, she said, and NASA and SpaceX are working hand in hand to test it, including with crews.
Logan Kennedy, HLS Surface Lead at Marshall, showed two progress slides. The second slide shows what it will look like when people set foot on the Moon next time, he said.
He also expressed his confidence in the elevator. One concern is moon dust, which sticks to everything and could clog the mechanisms. The elevator is designed to operate in this environment, he insisted, with a lot of conservatism built into the models because less is known about the lunar soil – the regolith – at the South Pole than at the Apollo sites.