SpaceX recently provided NASA with the third known official render of its stainless steel Starship, focused on the vehicle’s potential utility for launching massive scientific spacecraft for NASA. Starship’s only direct competition for the proposed LUVOIR telescope: NASA’s own SLS rocket.
Published by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Starship is shown with a smaller “B” variant of the proposed LUVOIR space telescope in its payload bay. According to a scientist from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI), the massive LUVOIR-A variant could “barely” fit inside Starship’s clamshell bay, but the telescope could also be tweaked to more perfectly fit the constraints of its chosen launch vehicle. LUVOIR is effectively being designed as a logical follow-up to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and could be ready to launch no earlier than 2039 if NASA selects the idea – one of three under consideration – for future development.
The LUVOIR telescope (shorthand for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor) is currently grouped into two different categories, A and B. A is a full-scale, uncompromised telescope with a vast 15-meter primary mirror and a sunshade with an area anywhere from 5000 to 20000 square meters (1-4 acres). B is a smaller take on the broadband surveyor telescope, with an 8-meter primary mirror (a quarter of the area of LUVOIR-A’s) accompanied by a similarly reduced sunshade (and price tag, presumably).
— Teslarati, July 2018
Goddard’s “we asked, SpaceX checked” statement refers to a funded analysis of LUVOIR launch options the group announced back in July 2018, at which point the future prospects of NASA’s SLS rocket were far more stable. Approximately nine months later, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that all work on future SLS upgrades – including the Block 1B and Block 2 variants that could have supported the launch of LUVOIR-A – was to be halted as soon as possible. All of that funding would instead be focused on mitigating a never-ending string of delays and pushing SLS to actually prepare for its first launches. Bridenstine has since publicly waffled on that aggressive plan, simultaneously indicating that some of those SLS upgrades (mainly an advanced upper stage, EUS) would be critical for one variant of his proposal to return astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024.
Regardless, the blood of SLS is currently in the water as NASA pursues an answer to the question of whether commercial rockets can instead be used to launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft and Lunar Gateway segments. Based on preliminary interviews focused on NASA’s internal study of the subject, there is still plenty of room for SLS as long as its contractors (namely Boeing) can stem relentless delays, cost overruns, and quality control issues and finally prepare the rocket for its first missions.
As described above, it appears likely that NASA is going to require the SLS rocket’s core stage to conduct a critical mission-duration test fire before permitting the vehicle to begin launch preparations in Florida. As a result, there will be almost no conceivable way for the rocket to rise to the 2020 launch debut challenge issued by Bridenstine, potentially meaning that NASA will put significant resources into studying and developing alternatives to SLS. If or when NASA sets the precedent for allowing serious studies and funding of SLS alternatives, the death of the rocket will almost certainly be assured. Relative to commercial rockets like Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, Vulcan Heavy, and even SpaceX’s BFR (i.e. Starship/Super Heavy), conservative estimates suggest that SLS will be no less than 5-20+ times as expensive on a per-launch basis.
Consequently, it should come as no surprise to see NASA Goddard openly confirm its willingness to launch future flagship science missions on SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, so long as the rocket is successfully developed, launched, and certified by NASA for high-value missions. Given just how distant the proposed ~2039 launch of LUVOIR is and how early SpaceX is in the process of developing Starship/Super Heavy into a highly mature and reliable launch vehicle, one should not read too far into Goddard’s public support.
However, there should be no doubt at this point that SpaceX’s next-generation Starship and current-generation Falcon Heavy rockets are already upsetting certain aspects of the status quo. If SpaceX continues to refine Starship’s design and demonstrate Falcon Heavy’s reliability and readiness, studies like Goddard’s LUVOIR launch case can be expected to crop up throughout domestic and global space industries, both pubic and private.
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