Starship Has 9 Months to Complete NASA's Lunar Contract. Against All Odds, SpaceX Believes It’s Doable

  • Starship’s development is accelerating, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • SpaceX’s must complete a propellant transfer test between spacecraft by early 2025.

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SpaceX is developing its enormous Starship spacecraft under a tense duality. On one hand, it needs to begin launching Starlink satellites to finance SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s ambitions to reach Mars. On the other hand, its most crucial contract is a commitment to NASA to travel to the Moon.

The ambitious Starship HLS mission. NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract stipulates that a Starship spacecraft will carry astronauts from the Orion capsule in lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon at the satellite’s south pole by September 2026.

If this mission, called Artemis III, is successful, it’ll mark the first human lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, as well as the first time in history that a woman steps on the Moon. These are goals that China, the other protagonist in the new space race, also aims to achieve by 2030.

No one had faith in this plan. Despite initial doubts about the readiness of NASA’s Orion spacecraft–which had heat shield issues in an unmanned test flight–and the suits for future astronauts developed by Axiom Space, both are expected to be ready by 2026.

Just a few days ago, it seemed unlikely that Starship would be prepared to take astronauts to the Moon within two years. Not even NASA believed this could be achievable and started studying alternatives to Artemis III. However, the possibility of a 2026 moon landing is now back on the table.

SpaceX has nine months to meet a critical milestone for the Artemis III mission in collaboration with NASA. The milestone involves conducting a cryogenic propellant transfer test between spacecraft by early 2025.

Starship, a rocket designed by SpaceX, utilizes liquid methane as fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. These propellants need to be kept at cryogenic temperatures to remain in their liquid state.

While Starship has already proven that it can transfer liquid oxygen between its internal tanks during flight, the new challenge is to launch two spacecraft into Earth orbit, have them dock in flight, and successfully transfer oxygen from one spacecraft to the other within nine months, as per the agreement with NASA.

Musk: “I think we can do it.” In an unexpected turn, Musk has expressed confidence in the progress of Starship development, stating that SpaceX is on track to complete the test by the first quarter of 2025.

This optimistic outlook marks a significant change from Musk’s previous pessimistic stance prior to Starship’s fourth test flight. Three months ago, the SpaceX CEO had tweeted: “Starship should be able to make it to the Moon in less than 5 years.”

Grounds for optimism. While Starship’s third flight test demonstrated its ability to transfer propellants inside the rocket, the most recent flight proved its ability to land a spacecraft the size of a 20-stories-high skyscraper. To carry out the lunar mission, SpaceX will utilize the Super Heavy launcher to deploy multiple Starships into orbit.

Most of these Starships will serve as tanker spacecraft for transferring propellants to a depot spacecraft, which will in turn fuel the Starship HLS traveling to the Moon. As such, the orbital propellant transfer maneuver needs to be successfully demonstrated before progressing with an unmanned lunar landing and the Artemis III mission.

Furthermore, many expect SpaceX’s launch frequency to increase following a change in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, allowing for quicker return to flight unless unpredictable testing failures occur. Technically, the fifth flight could take place once Booster 12 and Starship 30 are ready.

Image | SpaceX

Related | Elon Musk Made the Right Call When He Decided to Scrap Starship’s Carbon Fiber Exterior and Replace It With Steel

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