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NASA has chosen its hardware for deep space – now comes the fun part

NASA's Kathy Luders on the left and SpaceX's Hans Koenigsman follow the mission of the Demo-2 crew in 2020. SpaceX helps NASA think less about transport and more about research.
Zoom in / NASA’s Kathy Luders on the left and SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsman follow the mission of the Demo-2 crew in 2020. SpaceX helps NASA think less about transport and more about research.


No NASA employee would ever admit this publicly, but 2010 was a disappointing decade for human spaceflight.

After the space shuttle withdrew in 2011, as most know, NASA had no way to take its astronauts into space. But the disappointments went deeper. Even when the agency ascended into low Earth orbit, it was tasked with sending astronauts farther into deep space, to the moon and Mars. So NASA spent seemingly forever developing “capabilities” to get there, and observers often sensed NASA turning its wheels. Agency officials often talked about traveling to the moon and Mars, but that was all they did –I’m talking.

But now things are starting to change. We are still in the early days, but there is growing agreement at NASA on the need to focus less on transportation – the “how” to get there – and more on what to do when astronauts reach their destinations. This is because when the transport pieces fall into line, NASA can think of a real study.

“It’s very exciting that we’re starting to lay the groundwork for these key capabilities,” said Cathy Luders, an engineer who leads human research at NASA. “It’s not a dream anymore. We have very, very concrete steps.”

On Sunday morning, a SpaceX Crew Dragon burst safely into the Gulf of Mexico, returning four astronauts to Earth and carrying out the first operational mission of NASA’s new transport system to low Earth orbit. This frees NASA to plan more fully on what its astronauts are doing at the station and how best to support companies that want to build a new generation of commercial stations.

In addition, NASA has made significant progress in deep space. After spending a decade and, yes, tens of billions of dollars developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, these vehicles are due to make a test flight in early 2022. And in April, Lueders led the decision to choose SpaceX to modify its spacecraft to land humans on the moon.

This landing decision has two striking consequences. The first is that with the final hardware choice, NASA can begin to turn to what it will achieve on the moon – and eventually on Mars. And the second result of choosing SpaceX is that NASA already has the budget to focus on landing by 2024, as well as to create a lunar program beyond the dreams of even wide-open selenophiles.

This is sorted transportation

NASA developed the Apollo architecture – a large Saturn V rocket, the Apollo capsule and the lunar module – in the 1960s to defeat the Soviet Union by landing a man on the moon. The program was successful, but not cost-effective. In the 1970s, NASA designed and built the space shuttle to provide reusable space access. The shuttle program was a great success in this. While the larger orbital spacecraft proved to be a universal vehicle, it was very expensive to fly and maintain, averaging over $ 1 billion per mission.

Until 2003, after the space shuttle Colombia catastrophe, NASA decision-makers and space policy in Washington began to think seriously about the next. Since then, a clear direction has emerged from the White House and Congress: NASA must develop a plan to explore the moon and, ultimately, Mars, along with humans, in a sustainable way. This is both a huge technical and a fiscal challenge. No NASA space program for humans has ever been particularly frugal.

With this mandate to bring people back into deep space, since the early 2000s, NASA has been studying transportation systems and contracting to develop new space flight hardware. These efforts are finally bearing fruit. SpaceX and Boeing will bring astronauts into low Earth orbit through fixed-price contracts in the “commercial crew” program. For the moon, NASA also has its own source architecture. Orion and the Space Launch Rocket will launch astronauts into lunar orbit, and the Starcraft will land them on the moon.

Remarkably, the Starship choice also potentially provides NASA with a redundant launch system to guide astronauts all the way from the Earth’s surface to the moon. SpaceX designed Starship and its Super Heavy rocket to launch people from Earth.

The questions remain, of course. The merchant crew program is just beginning and Boeing has to prove the viability of its Starliner spacecraft. For deep space, Orion, SLS and Starship contractors must implement their development plans and manage their vehicles. But it makes sense for NASA to be able to tell Congress, its international partners and the general public that the agency is moving forward. Transport may be the essential first step towards research, but it is not on purpose.

And only when you decide on transportation can one have a meaningful conversation about what to do when you get there. Now is the time for the space community to hold such a discussion. The possibilities for what we could do are painful.

Saving stars

NASA selected SpaceX for its human landing system contract on April 16, awarding the company $ 2.89 billion for the cost of developing the Starship, one demonstration test and one crew landing back in 2024. That looks remarkable value.

Three days later, the NASA Inspector General published a report that included the cost of the NASA human landing system through this first landing. The report estimates that NASA will spend $ 17.3 billion to develop the landing and the first human landing. So with its fixed-price reward for SpaceX, NASA has saved more than $ 14 billion in the planned cost of landing Artemis. In practice, this means that NASA can include the Moon program in its existing budget, instead of needing billions of dollars more in the annual budgets of Congress.

This cost saving is just one potential benefit of Starship. The other is the incomparable ability to deliver cargo to the moon. After refueling in low Earth orbit, a fully usable Star Ship carrying only cargo – meaning it flies to the moon, unloads its payload and returns to Earth – can carry more than 50 tons to the lunar surface, according to calculations by physics Casey Hander. The costly spacecraft that lands on the moon and stays can bring more than 200 tons to the moon.

Two hundred tons! If it is difficult to understand how much load this is, consider the lunar module used by the Apollo program. In a cargo-only “truck” configuration, it is estimated that this vehicle can land about 5 tons on the lunar surface. So Starship would have the capacity to bring more than 40 times more material to the moon for a mission.

This is something that scientists and engineers who think about the development of the moon (and who publish reports such as the Lunar Exploration Roadmap) have dreamed of before. “This is really the key to sustainability,” said one of the roadmap’s authors, Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

If the SpaceX Starship program keeps its promises, NASA will no longer have to consider short moon moons, but it can build bona fide cities and allow trade to thrive. Thales Alenia can build large pressurized domes for habitats. Nokia can build its LTE / 4G network on the moon. We can have extraction, production, space tourism and much more. The cost of moving people and materials to the moon has always been the limiting factor for each of these endeavors.

After NASA chose its hardware, Neil said the space agency and the wider community need to think about how best to use this large transportation system. He believes that an important step for NASA would be to commit not just to “visit” the moon, but to stay. “Having a policy that says the United States is committed to the perseverance of the people of the moon will give trading companies the confidence to invest,” he said.

If NASA is really going to the moon, then let's get big.
Zoom in / If NASA is really going to the moon, then let’s get big.


For NASA, this transition from building transport capabilities to actual operations will not always be easy. It could be particularly difficult for the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which sees its role as a “transport” in NASA’s celestial rock. But in the end, NASA is doing research, not transportation systems. The flight of many more missions into deep space will open new opportunities for important government work.

For example, Marshall has a huge facility – the Environmental Control and Life Support System – that specializes in regenerative life support. If people are serious about living on the moon, going on six-month trips to Mars, or settling on the very surface of Mars, we will have to learn to live offshore. Recycling air and water, solving waste problems and much more are essential for this. Maybe Marshall could focus less on taking us there and more on keeping us alive once we’ve done so.

These are the more useful things anyway.

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