Thursday, November 17, 2022

SpaceX Gets Contract For Second Lunar Landing

On Tuesday, during the final day of the Artemis countdown, NASA announced a contract had been reached with SpaceX for a second manned Starship landing on the moon, no sooner than 2027.  

Known as Option B, NASA has exercised a baked-in right to modify its Human Landing System (HLS) Option A contract with SpaceX – signed in April 2021 – to extract even more value from investments into the program. In addition to an uncrewed Starship Moon landing planned no earlier than (NET) 2024 and a crewed demonstration that could land two NASA astronauts on the Moon as early as 2025, NASA’s contract modification gives SpaceX the approval and resources it needs to prepare for a second crewed Starship Moon landing.

In addition to securing the ride to the lunar surface for a second Artemis crew, the $1.15 billion contract also allows NASA and SpaceX to do research and testing toward upgrades to Starship that will make it an even more capable and cost-effective Moon lander.

There are currently three Starship configurations documented, each for their specific purpose.  Refueling in space is essential and needs to be realized before these later missions can be completed.  It's mission critical for Artemis III, IV and many future programs, and SpaceX also has a contract from NASA to demonstrate refueling on orbit.  Refueling missions can't be ironed out until Starship is operational, of course. 

It's hard to grasp just how different Starship is in overview from the rest of the Artemis, Orion, and Lunar Gateway.  A visual from a video featuring renderings of accurate models by HazeGrayArt is eye-opening, if not outright eye-popping.  The Orion capsule is at upper right, approaching the Lunar Gateway (in essentially the same Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit that CAPSTONE is in now).  The Gateway is that small assembly sticking out to the right of Starship's nose.  The blue rectangular solar arrays are part of the Gateway.  Starship dwarfs everything else.

Eric Ralph at Teslarati drops some other interesting facts on this. 

While the Artemis III landing [first moon landing - SiG] will be about as barebones as possible, the Artemis IV Starship will be upgraded with the ability to transport more NASA astronauts (four instead of just two) and more cargo to the lunar surface. It’s not entirely clear, but NASA reportedly wants to land just ~180 kilograms (~400 lb) of cargo with the first crewed Starship, a vehicle likely capable of landing dozens of tons of cargo in addition to several astronauts. NASA hopes that future “sustainable” lander missions, a category that Starship’s Option B landing may or may not fall under, will transport up to one ton (~2200 lb) of cargo to and from the lunar surface.

Finally, the Artemis IV Starship will also be able to dock with NASA’s Lunar Gateway. Gateway is a small deep space station that will be located in a strange, high lunar orbit. It exists almost exclusively to give NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule a destination they can both reach. The Orion capsule is almost twice as heavy as its Apollo counterpart and its European Service Module (ESM) offers less than half the performance of NASA’s retired Apollo Service Module. Combined, Orion is physically incapable of transporting itself (or astronauts) to the simpler low lunar orbits used by the Apollo Program.

Instead, NASA’s new Moon lander(s) have to pick up Orion’s slack. Starship will be responsible for picking up astronauts in a lunar near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), transporting them to low lunar orbit, and returning them to NRHO in addition to landing on the Moon, spending a week on the surface, and launching back into lunar orbit.

Until it’s modestly upgraded in the late 2020s or 2030s, Gateway will be equally underwhelming. In fact, that’s part of the reason that Starship docking with the Gateway is in any way significant. SpaceX and NASA have decades of expertise docking and berthing spacecraft with space stations. But those spacecraft are typically smaller and lighter than the stations they were joining. Even after the Gateway is fully outfitted with a range of international modules, Starship will likely weigh several times more than the tiny station, making docking even more challenging than it already is.

Starship’s Moon lander variant could also have a cabin with hundreds of cubic meters of habitable space, while the Gateway is unlikely to ever have more than a few dozen. Having a Starship docked would thus immediately make the ultra-cramped station far more livable.

The Artemis planning schedule that I posted back in March shows Artemis IV taking place in 2027.  Is that realistic?  The only things listed for 2022 (the first year in the timeline) are the first, unmanned flight of Artemis and CAPSTONE; both have been achieved.  In the case of the launch, delayed a lot but still will complete its mission in '22.  There are items in that schedule I don't have information on.  For what it's worth, I've seen a prediction by a guy who has been scary accurate in his predictions that Artemis III won't land until '27 instead of '25.  I assume that means pushing IV back another two years as well.  

As a tangential footnote, tomorrow evening at 5:27 PM EST, SpaceX will launch the CRS-26 uncrewed cargo capsule to the International Space Station.  This is the sixth flight for this Cargo Dragon capsule.  The booster will be recovered offshore.


  1. Now I get to say that I think the SpaceX timeline is overly optimistic.

    1. Fine, but it's not going to take 17 years to achieve!

      And the Gubmint keeps getting in the way.

  2. And when will Elon just decide to go it alone and skip NASA?

  3. Makes me feel we (almost) have a decent Manned Space Program again.

  4. Funny how 50 years ago, we had the ability to go to the moon & get back. Today we can't do it without first developing a refueling program in space? Yes we're bringing more stuff, and no, you don't want to make a parking lot on the moon of one way vehicles, but Really? What have we lost in our abilities over time.
    John, I'd say NASA is overly optimistic. SpaceX would have done it already if regulators got out of their way.

    1. Why don't we want a parking lot of vehicles? That's all stuff that can be repurposed and recycled on the moon for future use. Much easier to melt already aluminum than it is to refine and melt aluminum ore. Same with steel. Plastic can be melted and reformed. Gotta start somewhere.

      Not to mention, leaving habitation modules around as emergency shelters or hook a bunch up to make a large complex.

      It's all there in the post-initial landing plans. Including boosting upper stages all the way to the moon as metal sources or landing them and converting into habitats. Along with boosting 2nd and 3rd stages into LEO and making either an orbital smelter or a station out of all the pieces parts and since the upper stages were H2 and O2, not a lot of noxious chemicals to deal with.

      That, and orbital refueling, yes, that, too, is in all the post-landing plans.

      And nuclear stages so just about any amount of garbage or stuff could be ferried to geo orbit or to the Lagrange points or to lunar orbit or to lunar surface. Just not use the nuke stage in atmosphere.

      All of this could have been ours...

    2. Have you bothered to watch the hissy-fit any time "nuclear" is mentioned with regard to space? Even for RTGs!

  5. A week on the moon? A ton of cargo per pop? Glorious. Fifty years late, but glorious, nonetheless.

    Let's get to the meat-and-potatoes question:
    When they wander over to any of six previous American lunar landing sites, and find the artifacts exactly where we left them, will the babbling asshats who've spewed their "fake moon landing" bullshit be dragged out and pummeled to death just for the entertainment value, or will they have the good grace to kill themselves quietly at home?

    1. It will just be evidence of how improved fakery has become.

    2. Aesop - to borrow a quote and modify it, you can't change the opinion of someone by logic and evidence who didn't arrive at their opinion that way.

      Every IQ distribution has a tail of morons. Remember: people send wedding presents to soap opera characters getting married.

  6. This reminds me a bit of the lunar program described by Robert Heinlein back in the 60s - Earth to a station in Earth orbit , transfer to another ship to a station in lunar orbit , and a separate lunar lander . Each stage optimized for a single phase of the trip .

    1. Also touched very well by Arthur C. Clarke in "2001."