by choosing SpaceX, NASA is betting on the future

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Recently, NASA surprised everyone by selecting SpaceX (and only SpaceX) to deliver its next manned lunar lander. By betting on the Starship, it is thus giving itself the means to increase the number of missions at low cost. For its part, SpaceX will also need the American agency to go to Mars.

About a year ago, the NASA announced the award of three contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to begin the development of landing systems allowing the next man and the first woman to land on the moon in 2024.

Over the past few months, these three service providers have therefore developed their prototype. The Blue Origin and Dynetics teams submitted the most conventional designs. On paper, these two structures looked efficient, but were still sized to bring only a few astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has submitted a version of its Starship vehicle that will carry many more people in a single trip in addition to being fully reusable. Of course, the Starship is also technically the most demanding of the three vehicles. To carry out its missions on the Moon and beyond, the company’s engineers will indeed have to develop the technology to supply its vessels with methane and liquid oxygen in low earth orbit. But NASA sees beyond the tip of its nose.

A much more interesting offer

Consider this: NASA’s super-heavy SLS launcher will be able to launch 95 tonnes of payload into low earth orbit. The agency and its subcontractors will be able to build one per year for around two billion dollars per mission.

The Starship and Super Heavy vehicles should be able to deliver almost as many charges in low orbit. However, SpaceX is already capable of building one ship per month. And eventually, each ship will be able to fly dozens of times.

Imagine, then, the kind of space program that NASA could develop with the ability to launch a hundred tons into orbit every two weeks instead of a single annual mission for two billion… On paper, there is simply no photo. In their decision to select SpaceX, NASA officials were therefore able to recognize this potential.

However, it was not won in advance. To some, it indeed seemed difficult to imagine NASA fully considering the Starship before it managed to land without damage, which is not yet the case. SpaceX’s ability to build and launch so many Starships from South Texas over the past few months has obviously been enough to convince.

NASA will therefore fund SpaceX up to $ 2.89 billion for a first unmanned mission to the Moon, followed by a second with crew. In other words, when NASA astronauts return to the Moon in a few years, they will do so inside a vehicle fifty meters high. This vision contrasts with the seven-meter-high lunar module inside which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had piled up to land on the lunar soil in July 1969.

Credit: Trevor Mahlmann

SpaceX also needs NASA

SpaceX engineers are now the best in the world at designing, building and piloting innovative new rockets. However, to go to Mars, since this is the ambition of the company, building big rockets won’t be enough. SpaceX will indeed need to rely on other capabilities necessary to ensure the survival of humans on the Red Planet. This is where NASA comes in.

The agency has indeed been conducting studies of deep space missions for decades and has also been working on issues of recycling air, water and other consumables aboard the ISS for years, while that in these areas, SpaceX has only one limited experience.

In addition, any human mission to Mars will raise questions of planetary protection and other international concerns. A government agency will also be needed, for example to facilitate the development of nuclear energy on the planet Mars. Having NASA alongside SpaceX could therefore help solve all of these challenges.

mars perseverance spacex
Martian panorama captured by the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA / JPL

The problem with SLS

A question then arises: why is NASA funding a launch system that will be directly in competition with its SLS booster ? It is not yet very clear. For now, the SLS and its Orion spacecraft are still expected to be an essential part of Artemis’ architecture. And for good reason, the development of these structures provides jobs in the fifty American states and supports hundreds of small businesses. In contrast, the Starship is seen more as a “job killer” program from Congress’ point of view.

Also, under the current plan, we will have to deal with three structures. A Super Heavy rocket will launch a Starship ship into lunar orbit. A few days later, an SLS rocket will launch a crew inside an Orion spacecraft that will dock with the Starship around the moon. The crew will be transferred to the Starship which will drop them on the Moon. For the return, it will be the same principle.

However, this “threesome” might only be temporary. Ultimately, if the Starship is capable of transporting humans to the Moon directly from Earth, it is difficult to imagine NASA being encumbered with budgets of more than two billion per mission, while supporting a limited number of occupants. on board.

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