SpaceX Starship to land NASA astronauts on the Moon

SpaceX has won NASA funding to develop a custom Starship variant designed to land astronauts on the Moon. (SpaceX)

SpaceX has won part of a new $1 billion NASA contract to create a custom version of Starship designed explicitly to send space agency astronauts and huge amounts of cargo to the Moon.

Incredibly, SpaceX won its Lunar Starship development contract alongside two others awarded by NASA – one to a Blue Origin-led coalition and the other to Dynetics and “more than 25 subcontractors”. Of the three, only SpaceX’s offering is a single-stage lunar lander, while Dynetics wants to build a two-stage lander and Blue Origin wants to build a three-stage lander. It also appears that SpaceX’s custom Starship is the only lander designed to be at least partially reusable, capable of flying “many times between the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit” according to the launch company.

While potentially very exciting, the fate of NASA’s triple-threat Moon lander contract award now rests almost entirely in the hands of Congress. As of today, NASA has committed almost $970 million to the three lunar landers it’s decided to develop, only part of which the space agency appears to have on hand and ready for dispersal. For the program to even begin to approach actual missions to the Moon, let alone astronaut landings, Congress will have to consistently raise NASA’s budget every year for at least the next five to six.

Even insofar as that required budget raise (roughly ~$3B per year) is only a 10-15% increase and is effectively a rounding error relative to the rest of the federal budget, military in particular, the odds that Congress will consistently and fully support it are not great. For example, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – set to attempt its inaugural astronaut launch next month – began in 2010 with the expectation it would cost around $7-8 billion and achieve its first crewed launch in 2015 or 2016.

From 2010 to 2015, Congress systematically underfunded the Commercial Crew Program for largely parochial reasons, preferring to put money into projects (typically the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, and their launch facilities) that directly benefited their districts or states. Over half a decade, Congress supplied only 60% of the funds CCP had budgeted, a lack of resources that likely directly resulted in years of program delays. Notably, while both Boeing and SpaceX have run into significant technical hurdles and suffered their own technical delays, the companies would have almost certainly been able to discover those hurdles earlier on if they’d had the full CCP budget supporting them.

Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft stand vertical at their respective launch pads in December 2019 and January 2020. Crew Dragon has now performed two successful full-up launches to Starliner's lone partial failure. (Richard Angle)
Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft atop their Atlas V and Falcon 9 rockets. (Richard Angle)

It’s entirely unclear whether NASA’s new Artemis Moon lander program will have a better or worse time than the Commercial Crew Program. The same parochial SLS/Orion/ground systems interests remain in full force in the US House and Senate and will likely not be pleased by the fact that only one of NASA’s three HLS awards could result in SLS launch contracts. Surprise winner Dynetics has proposed a lander that can launch on either SLS 1B or the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rockets.

SpaceX’s Starship lander will unsurprisingly launch of its own Super Heavy rocket booster, while Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Draper’s lander will almost certainly launch on the former company’s New Glenn rocket.

Starship and Super Heavy. (SpaceX)
New Glenn. (Blue Origin)

Ultimately, this is the most significant acknowledgement and support SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket has ever received from NASA or the US federal government. Still, of the ~$970 million NASA has initially committed, Starship only received $135 million – nearly half as much as Dynetic received and more than four times less than Blue Origin’s award. NASA is thus clearly hinging its investment on SpaceX’s continued internal support for its next-generation, fully-reusable launch vehicle, as $135 million certainly isn’t enough for even SpaceX to build a building-sized rocket to land astronauts on the Moon.

Regardless, this is certainly one of the most intriguing possible outcomes of NASA’s Human Lander Systems contracts and should keep things very interesting – pending Congressional support – over the next several years.

SpaceX Starship to land NASA astronauts on the Moon
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