NASA is not requiring SpaceX to demonstrate that its Starship Human Landing System can take 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 lander for Artemis III preceded by an uncrewed test flight, but the head of NASA’s HLS program said today the demo does not include liftoff. She also stressed that Starship is still in the design and development phase with many challenges ahead, not ready to go as some seem to believe.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of the HLS program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, spoke to NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group this morning along with other NASA officials about the recent selection of 13 regions at the lunar South Pole for the Artemis III landing.
Artemis III will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. NASA currently expects the landing in late 2025, a little over three years from now.
SpaceX has been developing Starship for several years. Five test flights of prototypes of the second stage to an altitude of about 10 kilometers took place between December 2020 and May 2021. The first four ended in flames, but the fifth succeeded. The much larger first stage has not flown yet although “fit checks” of the fully assembled vehicle have taken place at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, TX test facility.
SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that launching Starship to 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 just for the second stage.
It is the second stage that will go to the Moon.
Starship is not designed to fly directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System, however. Instead, the first stage puts it only in Earth orbit. To go further, it must fill up with propellant at a yet-to-be-built orbiting fuel depot. Other Starships are needed to deliver propellant to the depot.
Watson-Morgan described the Concept of Operations for Starship’s Artemis III mission, starting with launch of the fuel depot, then a number of “propellant aggregation” launches to fill up the depot, then launch of the Starship that will go to Moon.
Her slide shows four propellant aggregation launches, but that is not a firm number. “How many? However many is needed, that’s how many will launch, ”she said.
SpaceX and NASA are working together to demonstrate cryogenic fluid management in orbit and “we still have a lot of challenges to overcome.”
“You could… maybe get a feeling that their [SpaceX’s] system is ready to go. And it’s not yet. We’re in design and development. … We’re still developing. We’re still changing. And we’re gonna get smarter and then we’re gonna have an incredible launch and we’re gonna have an incredible landing. ” Lisa Watson-Morgan
That landing of two NASA astronauts on Artemis III will be preceded by an uncrewed test planned in 2024, but she explained NASA is only requiring that SpaceX demonstrate a safe landing. Not liftoff.
“The uncrewed demo is not necessarily planned to be the same Starship that you see for the crewed demo. It’s going to be a skeleton because it just has to land. It does not have to lift back off, just for clarity. So clearly we want it to, but the requirements are for it to land. ” Lisa Watson-Morgan
The discussion took place in the context of scientific investigations that can be conducted on the Artemis III mission. Working with SpaceX and a select group of scientists, NASA has chosen 13 regions at the Moon’s South Pole where the landing could occur. NASA is now seeking input from the broader lunar science community to narrow the list.
Many factors are at play, especially the lighting conditions, which are quite different than at the six Apollo landing sites that were closer to the equator. The South Pole is of great scientific interest and its permanently shadowed regions are thought to contain water ice that could be used to support human outposts and other purposes.
One of the scientists in the audience expressed concern about whether the crew actually will be able to get down to and back from the surface to do science. Starship is very tall and has an elevator to get up and down.
Watson-Morgan offered assurances it will work. The elevator is multi-fault tolerant, she said, and NASA and SpaceX are working together hand-in-hand to test it, including with crews.
Logan Kennedy, HLS Surface Lead at Marshall, showed two slides of the progress being made. The second slide shows what it will look like when people set foot on the Moon next time, he said.
He also expressed confidence in the elevator. One concern is lunar dust, which sticks to everything and could foul the mechanisms. The elevator is designed to operate in that environment, he insisted, with a lot of conservatism built into the models because less is known about the lunar soil – regolith – at the South Pole than the Apollo sites.
Last Updated: Aug 23, 2022 4:26 pm ET