NASA does not require SpaceX to demonstrate that its Starship human landing system can take off from the lunar surface before using it for the Artemis III mission and the test vehicle will be a “skeleton” of the actual lander. NASA selected SpaceX to build the lander for Artemis III preceded by an uncrewed test flight, but NASA’s HLS program manager said today that the demonstration does not include liftoff. He also emphasized that Starship is still in the design and development phase with many challenges ahead, it is not ready to go as some seem to believe.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, HLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, spoke this morning with NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group along with other NASA officials about the recent selection of 13 regions at the Pole Lunar south for the landing of Artemis III.
Artemis III will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. NASA currently expects the landing in late 2025, just over three years from now.
SpaceX has been developing Starship for several years. Between December 2020 and May 2021, five test flights of prototypes of the second stage were carried out at an altitude of about 10 kilometers. The first four ended in flames, but the fifth was successful. The much larger first stage has yet to fly, although “fit checks” of the fully assembled vehicle have been performed at SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, TX.
SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that launching Starship into orbit is one of his two main goals this year.
SpaceX plans to use Starship for many purposes: launching satellites into Earth orbit, as well as people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The Starship name is used for both the entire vehicle and just the second stage.
It is the second stage that will go to the Moon.
However, Starship is not designed to fly directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System. Instead, the first stage puts it into Earth orbit alone. To go further, it must be filled with propellant at a yet-to-be-built orbiting fuel depot. Other starships are needed to deliver propellant to the depot.
Watson-Morgan outlined the concept of operations for Starship’s Artemis III mission, beginning with the fuel depot launch, then a series of “propellant aggregation” launches to fill the depot, then the Starship launch that will go to the Moon.
Your slide shows four thruster aggregation releases, but that’s not a firm number. “How much? Whatever amount is needed, that’s the amount that will be released,” she said.
SpaceX and NASA are working together to demonstrate cryogenic fluid management in orbit and “we still have a lot of challenges to overcome.”
“You might…perhaps get the feeling that your [SpaceX’s] The system is ready to go. And it still isn’t. We are in design and development. … We are still developing. We are still changing. And we’ll get smarter and then we’ll have an amazing launch and an amazing landing.” Lisa Watson Morgan
That landing of two NASA astronauts on Artemis III will be preceded by a planned uncrewed test in 2024, but he explained that NASA only requires SpaceX to demonstrate a safe landing. Don’t take off.
“The uncrewed demo isn’t necessarily planned to be the same Starship that you see for the crewed demo. It’s going to be a skeleton because it just has to land. It doesn’t have to stand up backwards, just for clarity. So clearly we want that it does, but the requirements are that it lands.” Lisa watson-morgan
The discussion took place in the context of the scientific investigations that can be carried out on the Artemis III mission. Working with SpaceX and a select group of scientists, NASA has chosen 13 regions at the South Pole of the Moon where the moon landing could occur. NASA is now seeking input from the broader lunar science community to narrow down the list.
Many factors are at play, especially the lighting conditions, which are quite different from the six Apollo landing sites that were closer to the equator. The South Pole is of great scientific interest and its permanently shadowed regions are believed to contain water ice that could be used to support human outposts and other purposes.
One of the scientists in the audience raised concerns about whether the crew would actually be able to get down and back from the surface to do science. Starship is very tall and has an elevator to go up and down.
Watson-Morgan offered assurances that it would work. The elevator is multi-fault tolerant, she said, and NASA and SpaceX are working together to test it, including with crews.
Logan Kennedy, HLS Surface Leader at Marshall, showed two slides of the progress being made. The second slide shows what it will look like when people set foot on the moon next time, he said.
He also expressed his confidence in the elevator. One concern is moon dust, which sticks to everything and could mess up the mechanisms. The elevator is designed to operate in that environment, she insisted, with much conservatism built into the models because less is known about the lunar soil (regolith) at the South Pole than the Apollo sites.
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