18 April 2021

The New York Times: “SpaceX wins NASA $2.9 Billion Contract to build Moon Lander”

NASA last year awarded contracts to three companies for initial design work on landers that could carry humans to the lunar surface. In addition to SpaceX, NASA selected proposals from Dynetics, a defense contractor in Huntsville, Ala., and Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, which had joined in what it called the National Team with several traditional aerospace companies: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

The award is only for the first crewed landing, and SpaceX must first perform an uncrewed landing. NASA is requiring a test flight to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission, Ms. Watson-Morgan said.

Kenneth Chang

I have not followed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon very closely, but I am rather disappointed in this decision, and what it says about the future of space exploration. As mentioned in this article and from the public source selection statement, the primary reason for selecting SpaceX was budgetary constraints, as the Blue Origin proposal had a comparable technical rating, but much higher price. Establishing a regular human presence on the surface of the Moon will be hard to achieve if NASA has to constantly defer to the US Congress for political and budgetary reasons. The most likely scenario is that the Artemis program will be modified and delayed year after year, as the agency’s priorities change with the shifting political climate. And this lack of long-term strategy is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

Rendering SpaceX Starship lander arriving on the Moon
An artist’s rendering of the SpaceX Starship lander arriving on the Moon. SpaceX

The Artemis plans currently call for the astronauts to launch into orbit on top of a Space Launch System rocket. The upper stage of the rocket is to then propel the Orion capsule, where the astronauts will be sitting, toward the moon.

Unlike NASA’s Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s, the lander spacecraft is to be sent separately to lunar orbit. Orion is to dock with the lander, which will then head to the surface.

But Starship will dwarf Orion in size, making the architecture similar to sailing a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean and then switching to a cruise ship for the short ride into port.

Starship, in principle, can take astronauts all the way from Earth to the moon without as much of the elaborate choreography of docking. Starship will need to be refueled with methane and liquid oxygen in orbit.

That aside, I have even less confidence in the ability of Elon Musk to deliver a functioning Moon lander in time. The Starship has failed its every flight test so far. It was designed for a considerably longer mission to Mars, so repurposing it into a Moon lander requires extensive redesign – and further testing. And on top of everything it is simply too large for the task. Some proposed replacing the NASA-designed Space Launch System rockets with SpaceX’s Starship, but apparently Starship would need refueling in orbit to complete the roundtrip to the Moon, which would introduce a whole new set of logistical issues.

The current contract is for a single crewed Moon landing, but it seems to me few people are actually planning ahead and considering how to make these trips routine. By selecting a single partner, there is the danger that other companies will abandon their plans, leaving Elon Musk with an effective monopoly on space launches, including to the Moon over the next decade. At that point, what would stop Musk from charging $3 Billion for each Moon launch, despite Starship being reusable?

Post a Comment