May 16, 2021
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NASA Picks SpaceX Starship As The Next Lunar Lander To Land People On The Moon

Illustration for article titled NASA Picks SpaceX Starship As The Next Lunar Lander To Land People On The Moon

Screenshot: NASA/SpaceX

Last year, NASA had narrowed down to three possible candidates to build the lunar landing vehicle for the Artemis program’s return to the moon: Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX. Today, NASA announced they picked the next lunar lander: Starship, built by SpaceX.

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The choice of Starship is interesting for a number of reasons: first, it’s SpaceX, which, largely thanks to Elon Musk, is perhaps the best-known private space contractor to the general public. Next, Starship is unique among the competitors in that it wasn’t designed solely as a landing craft; instead, Starship was designed to be a reusable orbital and beyond-Earth-orbit vehicle that just happens to be able to make a vertical landing.

It’s not yet clear if the Starship lunar lander will be designed to be more focused on its lunar landing role, since NASA does not intend to use it as the primary craft to get from Earth to the Moon, a job that their Orion capsule, launched to the Moon by their shuttle-tech-derived SLS heavy launch system.

SpaceX will get a fixed-price contract totaling $2.89 billion to build the lander.

NASA seems pretty confident about the decision, though if they weren’t, I doubt they’d say so in a press release. According to Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for HLS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama,

“This is an exciting time for NASA and especially the Artemis team. During the Apollo program, we proved that it is possible to do the seemingly impossible: land humans on the Moon. By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time.”

NASA’s announcement gives a bit of reasoning behind the decision to go with SpaceX:

SpaceX’s HLS Starship, designed to land on the Moon, leans on the company’s tested Raptor engines and flight heritage of the Falcon and Dragon vehicles. Starship includes a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks. The Starship architecture is intended to evolve to a fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations.

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As far as the reusability goes, I think the Starship lander will remain docked to NASA’s planned Gateway station in lunar orbit when not in use, which will allow the same craft to be used for multiple landings and return trips.

Looking at the latest image of the Starship lander and the one from last year, a few changes can be seen.

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Screenshot: NASA/SpaceX

Aside from paint jobs and window configuration, the biggest change is that the lander now sports deployable legs, which do make it seem a good bit sturdier, and, since it’s no longer resting so close to the surface, should allow the lander to land on rougher or more uneven terrain than the original design.

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One thing that hasn’t changed is the part I personally find most disconcerting:

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Screenshot: NASA/SpaceX

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The distance from the entry/egress hatch of the lander to the surface is huge: it’s around 100 feet off the ground, and even in one-sixth gravity, that’s a hell of a fall. It’s also a lot of distance to cover if an astronaut is hurt or has an equipment failure that would require them to get back in the habitable section of the lander in a hurry.

I see a sort of mechanized lift in the image, and while that is maybe better than a ladder in many cases, it’s still going to take time and introduces many points of failure. I’ll be curious to see how they plan on mitigating this issue. Maybe a deployable emergency shelter on the ground that they set up immediately?

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I guess we’ll find out.

Other than that, Starship seems to be a great choice—lots of habitable room, able to be re-fueled in space, highly re-usable, one stage to and from the moon to lunar orbit, and, perhaps more importantly, development on it has already started.

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Now they just need to land one without it blowing up, because not blowing up is part of what makes a great lunar lander. I suspect we’ll see that soon.

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