SpaceX plans to launch its flagship Starship mega-rocket for the first time in April.
The rocket, which NASA has marked for upcoming missions, is critical to NASA’s return to the moon.
As NASA moves away from building its own rockets, commercial players will be the focus of missions.
NASA is getting ever closer to returning to the moon after 50 years, and SpaceX is playing an integral role in the mission.
Elon Musk said SpaceX is aim April for the first launch of its massive Starship megarocket system, the world’s most powerful rocket designed to carry cargo and crew to the moon, Mars and beyond. It consists of a spacecraft and a booster, called “Super Heavy”, which SpaceX has successfully tested.
The highly anticipated launch of Starship will determine whether NASA’s Artemis lunar program is on track for success. In 2021 NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship to help the agency land the first humans on the moon since 1972. Starship also landed a contract to be part of the Artemis IV mission lo last November.
It will not only be a test of the company’s flagship vehicle, but also a key test of NASA’s bet to embed commercial players at the heart of their development process, according to Brendan Rosseau, professor of space economics at Harvard Business School.
“Interwoven into Artemis are the plans for the starship and all these other different components,” he told Insider in an interview.
NASA’s SLS relies on Starship for the moon landing
Unlike the Apollo missions, NASA’s rockets won’t take astronauts to the moon.
The crew will launch into lunar orbit aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft, tethered to the top of its new Space Launch System, or SLS, while a spacecraft, to be launched separately, will serve as the mission’s lunar lander.
Once the mission is over, Starship will take the crew back to Orion on their way back to Earth before the crew abandons Starship in lunar orbit, Space.com reported.
That means NASA expects a SpaceX-built rocket, which the agency has commissioned, to be the rocket to put boots on the moon for the first time since 1972.
“If you’re Bill Nelson, the administrator at NASA, you’re really watching Starship test launches closely because Starship is now a critical part of your infrastructure,” Rosseau said.
NASA’s reliance on Starship was evident when Nelson asked Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, whether Musk’s takeover of Twitter would affect the company’s mission with the agency, NBC reported. Shotwell assured him that he had “nothing to worry about”.
NASA’s support for SpaceX doesn’t stop at Artemis III. The agency has contracted SpaceX to design the Artemis IV lander, extending NASA’s investment by an additional $1.2 billion to design a system for docking the rocket at NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway.
“I think it shows NASA’s confidence in SpaceX’s ability to get Starship up and running by then. Obviously, that’s pretty remarkable, considering we haven’t even had a full orbital flight test of the system,” Rosseau said.
SpaceX’s success has always been in NASA’s plans
SpaceX’s success was part of NASA’s grand plan to bring commercial actors into the heart of its upcoming missions, Rosseau said.
After the shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA changed its approach to its development program. Instead of putting all of its energy into designing a rocket from inception to launch, the agency has begun pushing more investment into private companies that could shoulder the development burden as they compete for lower prices and greater efficiency, he said. Rosseau.
He said this strategy was risky but has now paid off “extremely well”. He added that it “started companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and all these other companies. This investment from NASA and having NASA as a customer is the only reason they exist today.”
SpaceX is not the only beneficiary of this strategy. NASA has contracted 14 private companies to transport a variety of payloads to the moon over the next few years. Three of those companies are expected to deliver a payload this year.
Musk promises that Starship will be cheaper and better than SLS
There’s no good estimate for the cost of Starship, but Musk has previously said that within a few years, each launch could cost less than $10 million.
SpaceX is also aiming to make Starship fully reusable, meaning it could potentially be launched multiple times a year.
“It could fundamentally change the economics of space and how much we can put into space and why,” Rosseau said.
If SpaceX were able to pull off just 50 launches “in a year, it would put more mass into space than has ever been put into space since Sputnik,” Rosseau said. This is only a third of the annual launches that SpaceX has set as a goal.
NASA’s SLS rocket, by contrast, comes at a steep price for taxpayers: The project has cost $50 billion to develop since the program began in 2006. And the 23-story rocket launched just six years later. the launch date expected in 2016.
And with each SLS launch costing more than $4 billion — with NASA having to build it every time it launches — it won’t get any cheaper anytime soon.
All of which makes NASA’s SLS a poor competitor to SpaceX’s shiny new rocket.
SLS was “a bit of an anomaly” for NASA
If NASA believes SpaceX can deliver on its promises, then why has it continued to support its SLS rocket?
Rosseau said NASA’s mega-rocket was “a bit of an anomaly” in its large shift towards commercial partnerships.
“If you look at the price tag and how long it took to develop and the problems it had, maybe that’s evidence that buying services from the commercial sector is indeed the way to go,” he said.
It may have been a political move, rather than a business decision, that drove SLS’ continued investments, Rosseau said.
“Some cynics would say that it was the congressional embezzlers and the senators with parochial interests who really wanted NASA to build a giant rocket just for jobs in their districts,” he said.
Still, SLS is likely to remain NASA’s workhorse, at least for Artemis missions, Rosseau said.
“The benefit of SLS to Artemis is that, frankly, it was built for the Artemis mission. It was built to be compatible with the Orion spacecraft. It was built to do this job,” he said.
“NASA has been working very hard on it. It looks like they will continue to do this for some time.”
However, if SpaceX can demonstrate that Starship is less expensive and more efficient, there could be “increasing pressure” for NASA to prioritize heavier use of its rockets on missions beyond Artemis, Rosseau said.
NASA doesn’t want to rely on Starship alone
The spacecraft is the only vehicle that could allow NASA to land on the moon.
But Greg Autry, a visiting professor at Imperial College London’s Institute for Security, Science and Technology, told Insider: “We need to have more than one way to get on and off the moon.”
He called Starship “incredibly promising,” but warned there are many hurdles to overcome before it makes its maiden orbital flight. These include refueling the in-orbit lander, obtaining life support hardware on the spacecraft, and refining the dust mitigation strategy for the moon landing.
“If any company can do it, SpaceX can, but given the usual programmatic delays, which Starship hasn’t been immune to, it’s a real concern in the critical path to landing,” Autry said.
NASA needs to make sure it has another lunar lander, in addition to Starship, for “mission assurance, system redundancy, and ultimately to ensure economic competition,” he said.
“NASA is, as a policy, pretty averse to having a winner,” agreed Rosseau.
The agency moved last September to open a contract to acquire a second lunar lander from competitors for future missions.
There is room for several competitors in the market, Rosseau said, adding that he will keep an eye out for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Relativity Space’s Terran R rocket in the near future.
“You want healthy competition in this industry so people have to keep innovating and not become complacent,” he said.
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