Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What NASA Wants and Expects from Starship Testing

Eric Berger at Ars Technica speculates that few people if any were happier with Starship's flight test IFT-4 last week than a NASA engineer named Catherine Koerner. 

In remarks after the spaceflight, Koerner praised the "incredible" video of the Starship rocket and its Super Heavy booster returning to Earth, with each making a soft landing. "That was very promising, and a very, very successful engineering test," she added, speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board.

A former flight director, Koerner now manages development of the "exploration systems" that will support the Artemis missions for NASA—a hugely influential position within the space agency. This includes the Space Launch System rocket, NASA's Orion spacecraft, spacesuits, and the Starship vehicle that will land on the Moon.

That's a lot to be overseeing, and it's not all going spectacularly smoothly. There are many reasons to be concerned with the announced date of September 2026 for the Artemis III mission that will land on the moon. While IFT-4 demonstrated a lot of progress there is still much to do to ensure a successful moon landing. Much of that has little or nothing to do with SpaceX and Starship.

Depending on where they work and how high up the "org tree" they are, engineers can spend as much - or more - time contingency planning as they do designing. As part of trying to make those plans, NASA and SpaceX have raised the the possibility of modifying the Artemis III mission. Instead of landing on the Moon, a crew would launch in the Orion spacecraft and rendezvous with Starship in low-Earth orbit. This would essentially be a repeat of the Apollo 9 mission, buying down risk by carrying out some of the essential parts of the Artemis III mission, making fewer "first time we ever try this" aspects for the landing mission.

Officially, NASA maintains that the agency will fly a crewed lunar landing, the Artemis III mission, in September 2026. But almost no one in the space community regards that launch date as more than aspirational. Some of my best sources have put the most likely range of dates for such a mission from 2028 to 2032. A modified Artemis III mission, in low-Earth orbit, would therefore bridge a gap between Artemis II and an eventual landing.

NASA hasn't announced any final plans and there is much to wait on. What's the status on Orion's heat shield issues? Part of the waiting is to see how Artemis II progresses and what happens with Starship and spacesuit development

During her remarks, Koerner was also asked what SpaceX's next major milestone is and when it would need to be completed for NASA to remain on track for a lunar landing in 2026. "Their next big milestone test, from a contract perspective, is the cryogenic transfer test," she said. "That is going to be early next year."

Some details about the Starship propellant transfer test. Image credit: NASA

This timeline is consistent with what NASA's Human Landing System program manager, Lisa Watson-Morgan recently told Ars. It provides a useful benchmark to evaluate Starship's progress in NASA's eyes. The "prop transfer demo" is a fairly complex mission that involves the launch of a "Starship target" from the Starbase facility in South Texas. Then a second vehicle, the "Starship chaser," will launch and meet the target in orbit and rendezvous. The chaser will then transfer a quantity of propellant to the target spaceship.

The test will entail a lot of technology, including docking mechanisms, navigation sensors, quick disconnects, and more. If SpaceX completes this test during the first quarter of 2025, NASA will at least theoretically have a path forward to a crewed lunar landing in 2026.

There has been a flurry of reports the next test flight will be in July, but I haven't seen a date mentioned. July 6th would a month after the last test flight and that's three weeks before the end of the month so it doesn't take much delay to make it two months after IFT-4. Since the booster landed on target 12 miles off the Boca Chica beach, the booster for IFT-5 will be expected to work better than that, and yes, it sounds like they intend to catch the booster with the mechazilla arms. Booster 12 has been in Mega Bay 1 since January, and is awaiting static fire.  

Don't forget that one engine on the booster failed before it cleared the tower and another blew up  during its landing burn before settling onto the Gulf waters. That's being looked into, too.

The ship is a different matter. While Ship 29 was nothing short of astonishing, surviving part of a flap being burned off, it landed "several km" from its target. Ship 30 has to address those issues starting with, "let's not melt this time."

Because of these issues, Ship 30 is already getting its heat shield tiles and underlying blankets removed and eventually replaced. The underlying blankets would be replaced by a new ablative material that may have debuted on Ship 29. As stated by Elon Musk, the tiles are getting upgraded to a newer, much stronger design. Even though Ship 29 completed the flip and burn maneuver, it was a couple of kilometers off target due to the flap damage. 

Starship 29 and Super Heavy B11 before last Thursday's (June 6) IFT-4. Image credit to Elon Musk at X


  1. Look, NASA needs to chuck the Artemis program and simply stand back and shovel money to SpaceX, whom seems to have their Feces Consolidated.

    Oh, Wait, the Old Space Guard won't get their cut of the majority of the money, will still continue to "cost overrun", and generally piss away the taxpayer money just like they have always done in the last 30 years.

    SpaceX has all the necessary gear to completely eliminate the boondoggle that is the Artemis program. But they won't. You can just betcher ass that lobbyists are still making sure the Old Space Gravy Train continues to run. To them. I'm glaring at YOU, Boeing, ULA, Northrop Grumman, etc.!

    I just had a weird thought - what if Elon became the head administrator of NASA!?!? What a hoot.

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  3. Just a hunch, but I'm 99% certain that NASA's over-arching goal is to secure more funding for NASA.

    Getting anything into space without killing people on the rockets or on the ground is a distant second-place priority, and an entirely disposable one, if it comes to that.

    Let's be absolutely clear on that situation.

    1. And I think there's a 99% chance you're right. They've become the self-eating watermelon, all based on cost plus contracts. Artemis launches are in the range of $5 billion each and they're literally using the same engines as the shuttles. Not the same design, the same "used/pre-flown" engines that flew on shuttles. It has been reported those engines cost $145 million EACH, or $580 for one mission.

      To quote myself, those RS-25 engines are rated at 512,000 pounds of thrust and that's not a level that nobody else can provide. Both Blue Origin's BE-4 engines and SpaceX's Raptor 2 (and the newer Raptor 3) are in the same class. Blue Origin sells the BE-4 for less than $20 million. The Raptor's design price point is under $1 million.

  4. I ran across a long form essay on Artemis last month. The author is NOT a fan:

    1. No, from reading it he is definitely NOT a fan! But he needs to suggest something different if he wants to, otherwise STFU and STFD. SpaceX will *make* it work, BO not so much.

      Just My Humble Opinion.

    2. LOL. Pretty sure the internet doesn't work that way.

    3. I meant to add yesterday that I had pretty much skimmed the article; top level, like to get what each main point was about. I didn't notice things I'd never heard of or even written about. I didn't see anything wrong, either.

      Then I looked at his post on why we shouldn't even think of going to Mars and just get the impression he's mostly against anything that has to do with those really hard projects. In any project that big, you have to figure the chances of failure are far higher than those of success, but it's about the learning that comes out of it. Much like SpaceX's test to failure, redesign and test again approach to Starship design.

  5. Blue Origin's BE-4 and Artemis are both pretty much prototypes. It is not correct to compare them to Raptor engines / SpaceX.

    1. Exactly on point. Let's see some hardware flying, already!

  6. I may start taking bets if Artemis II or Artemis III ever fly with a human crew. I might give even money right now.

  7. jeff d - while I see your point (I think) about the number of successful Raptors that SpaceX has built compared to BE-4s Blue has built, the fact that they've done some at all is the same argument that the RS-25 engines on Artemis just aren't that special and are horrifically, epically, overpriced.

    The thing I didn't mention this time, but have before, is that they can't just replace those RS-25s with Raptors or another, because the RS-25s are Liquid H2 and LOX while the Raptors and BE-4s are methane/oxygen (methalox). It's a total system redesign. Which argues to throw it out and start over.

    Lynn - I'm with you in having serious doubts that Artemis will ever fly a crew. Artemis is a testament to over budget and late delivery. They've wasted so much money on it that it's mind boggling. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is alive and well with Artemis!