No NASA official would ever admit that in publicbut the 2010s have been a frustrating decade for human spaceflight.
After the space shuttle retired in 2011, as most everybody knows, NASA had no method to get its own astronauts into space. However, the frustrations ran deeper. Even since the agency scrambled to release into low Earth orbit, it was tasked with sending astronauts further afield to deep space–to the Moon and Mars. So NASA has spent seemingly forever developing”capabilities” to get there, and observers often felt like NASA was spinning its wheels. Agency officials often talked about going to the Moon and Mars, but that was all they did–speak .
Now, however, things are starting to change. We’re still in early days, however there is growing agreement at NASA about the need to focus less on transportation–the”how” of getting there–and more about what to do when astronauts reach their destinations. This is because, since the transport pieces fall in line, NASA can consider actual exploration.
“It’s very exciting that we’re starting to lay in the foundations for these key capabilities,” said Kathy Lueders, the engineer who directs human exploration for NASA. “This isn’t a dream anymore. We’ve got very, very concrete steps.”
On Sunday morning, a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle splashed down firmly at the Gulf of Mexico, bringing four astronauts back to Earth and finishing the very first operational mission of NASA’s new transport system to low Earth orbit. This frees NASA to program more completely because of what its astronauts do on the station and how best to support businesses which are looking to build a new generation of commercial channels.
Moreover, NASA has made significant strides into deep space as well. After spending a decade and, yes, tens of thousands of thousands of dollars developing the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket, these vehicles should make a test flight early in 2022. And in April, Lueders led the choice to pick SpaceX to modify its Starship automobile to land people on the Moon.
This lander choice comes with two remarkable consequences. The first is that, with the last hardware choices made, NASA can start pivoting toward what it will accomplish on the Moon–and eventually Mars. And the next outcome of choosing SpaceX is that NASA currently has the funds wherewithal to both target a 2024 landing in addition to craft a lunar program beyond the dreams of even wide-eyed selenophiles.
That’s transportation sorted
NASA developed the Apollo architecture–a sizable Saturn V rocket, the Apollo capsule, along with the Lunar Module–in the 1960s to beat the Soviet Union to a human landing on the Moon. The program was successful but not sustainable concerning costs. From the 1970s, NASA built and designed the space shuttle to provide reusable, affordable access to space. In this, the shuttle program had mixed success. While the larger orbiter proved to be a versatile vehicle, it had been quite expensive to fly and maintain, in an average of more than $1 billion per assignment.
By 2003, following the space shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA and space policy decision makers in Washington, DC, Started to think seriously about what came next. A clear leadership has since emerged in the White House and Congress: NASA should develop a strategy to explore the Moon and eventually Mars, with humans, in a sustainable way. This is both a huge technical challenge and a fiscal one. No NASA human space program has ever been particularly frugal.
With this mandate to return individuals to deep space, since the ancient 2000therefore, NASA has been analyzing transportation systems and awarding contracts to develop new spaceflight hardware. These efforts are finally bearing fruit. SpaceX and Boeing, through fixed-price contracts at the”commercial crew” program, will get astronauts into low Earth orbit. For the Moon, NASA has its baseline architecture, also. Orion and the Space Launch System rocket will get astronauts to lunar orbit, and Starship will land them onto the Moon.
Notably, picking Starship also potentially provides NASA with a redundant launch system for getting astronauts all of the way from the outside of the Earth to the Moon. SpaceX is designing Starship and its Super Heavy rocket to start people from Earth.
Questions remain, naturally. The commercial crew program is simply getting started, and Boeing has to show the viability of its own Starliner spacecraft. For deep space, the contractors for Orion, SLS, and Starship have to execute on their development plans and fly their vehicles. Nonetheless, it’s nonetheless meaningful for NASA to have the ability to tell Congress, its international partners, and the general public that the agency is moving forward. Transportation might be the essential first step toward exploration, but it’s not that the goal.
And just once you solve transport can you have a meaningful conversation about what to do if you arrive. Now is time for the space community to possess such a discussion. The possibilities for what we may do are tantalizing.
NASA chosen SpaceX for its Human Landing System contract on April 16, awarding the company $2. 89 billion to Starship development expenses, one uncrewed demonstration evaluation, also one crewed landing as early as 2024. This seems like a remarkable price.
Three days later, NASA’s inspector general released a report that included the total cost of this Human Landing System for NASA during this first landing. The report estimated that NASA would invest $17.3 billion to lander development and also the first human landing. So using its fixed-price award to SpaceX, NASA rescued more than $14 billion at its own projected prices for the Artemis landing. Effectively, this means that NASA will squeeze into a Moon program to its existing funding instead of needing billions of dollars more in annual budgets from Congress.
This cost savings is but one potential benefit of Starship. Another is an unparalleled capacity to deliver freight to the Moon. After refueling in low Earth orbit, a totally reusable Starship carrying freight just –meaning it flies to the Moon, unloads its payload, and returns to Earth–might carry greater than 50 tons into the lunar surface, according to estimates from physicist Casey Handmer. An expendable Starship, that lands on the Moon and remains, could bring more than 200 heaps into the Moon.
Two hundred tons! If it’s hard to conceptualize how much cargo this is, think about the lunar module used from the Apollo Program. In that a”truck” configuration for freight only, it had been estimated that this vehicle could bring about 5 tons down to the lunar surface. So Starship would possess the capability to bring greater than 40 times as much stuff down into the Moon, per assignment.
This is something that scientists and engineers that think about growth on the Moon (and that put out reports such as the Lunar Exploration Roadmap) have only dreamed of previously. “This is really the key to sustainability,” explained one of the roadmap’s authors, Clive Neal, who is a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame.
If SpaceX’s Starship program delivers on its promises, NASA would not have to consider short forays on the Moon however could construct bona fide cities and permit commercial activity to thrive. Thales Alenia could build big, pressurized domes for habitats. Nokia could construct its LTE/4G system on the Moon. We might have mining, production, space tourism, and so much more. The cost of getting materials and people to the Moon has always been the limiting factor for one or more of these ventures to occur.
Now that NASA has chosen its own hardware, Neal said the space agency and broader community ought to consider how best to apply this high-volume transport system. He believes a significant step for NASA is to commit to not just”visiting” the Moon however remaining. “Having a policy in place that says the United States is committed to human permanence on the Moon would give commercial companies the confidence to invest,” he said.
For NASA, this transition from building transport”capabilities” to real operations will not always be simple. It may prove particularly difficult for Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which views its role as”transportation” inside the NASA firmament. But at the end of the afternoon, NASA is about exploration, not transportation systems. Flying many more missions into deep space will open new chances for significant government work.
For example, Marshall includes a huge facility–the Environmental Control and Life Support System–that specializes in regenerative life support. If individuals are seriously interested in living on the Moon, surviving six-month journeys to Mars, or knocking to the surface of Mars itself, we’re going to need to learn to live off the land. Recycling water and air, solving waste issues, and more are essential to this. Maybe Marshall could focus less on getting us more on keeping us living after we’ve made it.
That’s the more rewarding stuff, anyhow.