SpaceX eyes multiple Starship lunar landings before first NASA Moon mission

SpaceX director Nick Cummings says that the company may ultimately attempt or complete multiple uncrewed Starship Moon landings before attempting to land NASA astronauts. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal, SpaceX)

SpaceX Director Nick Cummings says that the company could potentially attempt multiple uncrewed Starship lunar landings before the first attempt at landing NASA astronauts on the Moon.

In April 2020, NASA announced the first commercial contract recipients under its new Human Landing System (HLS) program, awarding almost $1 billion in an uneven split between Dynetics, Blue Origin’s “National Team”, and SpaceX. While an undeniable boon for Dynetics, SpaceX’s inclusion arguably came as the biggest surprise, marking NASA’s first serious investment in Starship – the company’s next-generation, fully-reusable launch vehicle.

NASA’s goal: develop one or more competing human-rated Moon landers capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface and safely returning them to an Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit. Towards that end, the space agency awarded Blue Origin’s “National Team” (including Draper, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman) $567 million to develop a massive and complex three-stage system, using Blue Origin’s conceptual Blue Moon lander for the final descent stage. Dynetics received $253 million to build a slightly simple single-stage lander, while SpaceX received $135 million to work on a single-stage Starship-derived vehicle.

It’s never been entirely clear what returns NASA expects from its initial ~$970 million investment – no trivial sum. It’s also unclear why there is such a discrepancy between the three rewards. Regardless, as of October 2020, all three competitors have successfully passed what NASA describes as a certification baseline review (CBR), laying out explicit deliverables (“acceptance criteria and products”).*

*As a side-note, if the three contracts NASA awarded involve the same deliverables, the space agency’s first HLS awards serve as yet another reminder that SpaceX’s competitors are almost inconceivably inefficient – almost 2x cheaper than Dynetics and more than 4x cheaper than Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, et al.

Regardless, one thing is abundantly clear: whether or not NASA’s first phase of HLS rewards anticipated it, SpaceX is the only provider performing actual integrated tests with full-scale Starship prototypes. Since NASA’s April 30th award, SpaceX has successfully completed two hop tests with two separate full-scale Starships, powered by a single off-center Raptor engine that may already serve as a real-world demonstration for a strategy SpaceX could use to gently land Starships on the Moon.

In an intriguing change of pace, NASA says that it will ultimately downselect to two of its three prospective providers, whereas past messaging has heavily implied that more than one winner was extremely unlikely. The space agency now wants to make that decision no earlier than Spring (i.e. April) 2021 with the intention of awarding contracts for demonstration flights from both providers: one to fly in 2024 and the other in 2025.

Meanwhile, over the last several months, Dynetics and Blue Origin have made significant noise over their respective reveals of what essentially amount to toy-like mockups of their proposed Moon lander systems. Blue Origin is technically making good progress testing Blue Moon’s BE-7 engine, but that’s the full extent of known hardware in work between both the National Team and Dynetics. SpaceX, on the other hand, appears to be assembling some kind of Lunar Starship mockup out of real hardware, including an off-spec steel nose and – potentially – one of two functional, flight-proven Starship prototypes. The company has also built and tested no less than 39 full-scale Raptor engine prototypes in the last ~18 months.

Ultimately, all three providers have now confirmed that in the event of winning flight test contracts, they are explicitly planning at least one uncrewed Moon landing before attempting to deliver NASA astronauts to and from the lunar surface. If NASA manages to secure future HLS funding from Congress, the next several years are bound to be jam-packed with lunar spaceflight development and exploration.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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