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NASA has chosen its deep space hardware – now comes the fun part

NASA's Kathy Lueders, left, and SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann are tracking the Demo-2 crew mission in 2020. SpaceX helps enable NASA to think less about transportation and more about exploration.
Enlarge / NASA’s Kathy Lueders, left, and SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann are tracking the Demo-2 crew mission in 2020. SpaceX helps enable NASA to think less about transportation and more about exploration.


No NASA official would ever admit this publicly, but the 2010s have been a frustrating decade for human spaceflight.

After the space shuttle retired in 2011, as most people know, NASA had no way of getting its astronauts into space. But the frustrations ran deeper. Even as the agency struggled to launch into a low orbit around the Earth, it was tasked with sending astronauts further into deep space – to the Moon and Mars. So NASA has apparently spent forever developing “capabilities” to get there, and observers often felt that NASA was spinning the wheels. Agency officials often talked about going to the Moon and Mars, but that was all they did –talk.

Now, however, things are starting to change. We are still in the early days, but there is growing agreement in NASA about the need to focus less on transportation – “how” to get there – and more on what to do when astronauts get to their destinations. This is because NASA can think of actual exploration as the transport pieces fall in line.

“It’s very exciting that we’re starting to lay the groundwork for these key features,” said Kathy Lueders, the engineer leading human research for NASA. “This is not a dream anymore. We’ve got very, very concrete steps.”

On Sunday morning, a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle safely crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, bringing four astronauts back to Earth and completing the first operational mission in NASA’s new low-Earth orbit transport system. This frees NASA to plan more fully what its astronauts do at the station and how best to support companies looking to build a new generation of commercial stations.

In addition, NASA has also made significant progress in deep space. After spending a decade and, yes, tens of billions of billions of dollars developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, these vehicles were to make a test flight in early 2022. And in April, Lueders made the decision to choose SpaceX to change its Starship vehicle to land humans on the moon.

This landing decision has two striking implications. The first is that with the final choice of hardware, NASA can begin to turn to what it will accomplish on the Moon – and eventually Mars. And the second result of the choice of SpaceX is that NASA now has the budget to both target a 2024 landing as well as develop a lunar program in addition to dreams of even big-eyed selenophiles.

The transport is sorted

NASA developed the Apollo architecture – a large Saturn V rocket, the Apollo capsule and the Lunar module – in the 1960s to turn the Soviet Union into a human landing on the Moon. The program was successful but not sustainable in terms of cost. In the 1970s, NASA designed and built the space shuttle to provide reusable, affordable access to space. In this, the shuttle program had mixed success. While the larger orbiter turned out to be a versatile vehicle, it was very expensive to fly and maintain with an average of more than 1 billion. $ Pr. Mission.

In 2003 after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA and space policy makers in Washington, DC, began to think seriously about what came next. There has since been a clear direction from the White House and Congress: NASA should develop a plan to explore the Moon and eventually Mars with humans in a sustainable way. This is both a huge technical and fiscal challenge. No NASA human space program has ever been particularly sparse.

With this mandate to return humans to deep space, NASA has been studying transportation systems since the early 2000s and awarded contracts for the development of new space hardware. This effort is finally bearing fruit. Through fixed-price contracts in the “commercial crew” program, SpaceX and Boeing will get astronauts in low Earth orbit. For the moon, NASA also has its basic architecture. The Orion and Space Launch System rocket takes astronauts to lunar orbit, and Starship lands them on the Moon.

In particular, the choice of Starship also potentially gives NASA a redundant launch system to get astronauts all the way from Earth’s surface to the moon. SpaceX designs Starship and its Super Heavy rocket to launch humans from Earth.

Of course, questions remain. The commercial crew program is only underway, and Boeing must prove the viability of its Starliner spacecraft. In the deep space, the contractors for Orion, SLS and Starship will carry out their development plans and fly their vehicles. But it nevertheless makes sense for NASA to be able to tell Congress, its international partners, and the public that the agency is moving forward. Transportation may be the most important first step towards exploration, but it is not that Goal.

And only when you solve transport, can you have a meaningful conversation about what to do when you get there. Now is the time for space society to have such a discussion. The possibilities for what we can do are tantalizing.

Starship savings

NASA selected SpaceX for its Human Landing System contract on April 16, allocating $ 2.89 billion to the company. $ For development costs for Starship, an unmanned demonstration test and a manned landing as early as 2024. This seems like a remarkable value.

Three days later, NASA’s Director General published a report covering the cost of NASA’s Human Landing System through this first landing. The report estimated that NASA would spend $ 17.3 billion on land development and the first human landing. So with its fixed price to SpaceX, NASA saved more than $ 14 billion in the expected cost of Artemis landing. Effectively, this means that NASA could squeeze a Moon program into its existing budget instead of needing billions of dollars more in annual budgets from Congress.

These cost savings are only a potential benefit of Starship. The second is a unique ability to deliver goods to the Moon. After refueling in a low earth orbit, a fully reusable spacecraft that transports only cargo – meaning it flies to the moon, unloads its payload and returns to Earth – could carry more than 50 tons to the moon’s surface, according to physicist estimates Casey Handmer. A usable starship that lands on the moon and remains could bring more than 200 tons to the moon.

Two hundred tons! If it’s hard to imagine how much freight this is, consider the lunar module used by the Apollo program. In a “truck” configuration for freight only, it was estimated that this vehicle could bring 5 tons down to the surface of the moon. So Starship would have the capacity to bring more than 40 times as much material down to the Moon per. Mission.

This is something that scientists and engineers who think about the evolution of the Moon (and who release reports like the Lunar Exploration Roadmap) have only dreamed of before. “This is truly the key to sustainability,” explained one of the roadmap’s authors, Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

If SpaceX’s Starship program lives up to its promises, NASA would no longer have to consider brief attacks on the Moon, but could build bona fide cities and let commercial activity thrive. Thales Alenia was able to build large domes under pressure for habitats. Nokia was able to build its LTE / 4G network on the Moon. We could have mining, manufacturing, space tourism and so much more. The cost of getting people and materials to the moon has always been the limiting factor for any of these ventures to take place.

Now that NASA has chosen its hardware, Neal said the space agency and the wider community should think about how best to use this high-volume transportation system. He believes an important step for NASA would be to commit to not only “visiting” the Moon, but staying. “Having a policy in place that says the United States is committed to human longevity on the Moon would give commercial companies the confidence to invest,” he said.

If NASA really goes to the Moon, then let's go big.
Enlarge / If NASA really goes to the Moon, then let’s go big.


For NASA, this transition from building transportation capabilities to actual operations will not always be easy. This can prove particularly difficult for Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which sees its role as “transportation” within the NASA firmament. But at the end of the day, NASA is all about exploration, not transportation systems. Flying many more missions into the deep space opens up new opportunities for important government work.

For example, Marshall has a huge facility – Environmental Control and Life Support System – that specializes in regenerative life support. If humans are serious about living on the Moon, surviving six months of travel to Mars, or settling on the surface of Mars itself, we will have to learn to live off the land. Reusing air and water, solving waste problems and much more are crucial to it. Maybe Marshall could focus less on getting us there and more on keeping us alive once we got there.

Those are the more rewarding things anyway.

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