Today we’ll see the exciting plans for humans to return to the Moon within this decade. Spearheaded primarily by NASA, the Artemis program receives support from various partner space agencies and private companies.
SpaceX is pivotal in delivering the lunar Starship, allowing astronauts to set foot on the Moon after over 50 years.
The Artemis program, like any endeavor in the space flight industry, constantly evolves as new variables come into play.
Timelines and flight plans undergo revisions and rewrites, making it a challenge to keep track of the ever-changing developments.
In this discussion, we’ll focus on how SpaceX and NASA collaborate to facilitate the return of human presence to the Moon.
SpaceX and the Lunar Starship
SpaceX, though essentially serving as a subcontractor within the Artemis program, holds the responsibility of delivering the most significant part of the lunar landing mission—the lunar Starship.
This human landing system is critical to NASA’s mission, as it bridges the gap between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface.
While the Artemis program has NASA’s SLS launcher to transport the crew to lunar orbit and the Orion spacecraft to facilitate safe travel for the crew, it lacks a vehicle capable of descending from Orion to the lunar surface and returning.
See: Inside the Starship
In the Apollo era, NASA could include a small lunar lander within the same rocket that launched the Command Module. However, the modern Artemis program’s logistical requirements are vastly different.
The SLS offers less lift capacity than the Saturn V, used during Apollo missions. Although SLS has greater thrust at liftoff, its payload capacity is limited.
So, the Artemis program demands a robust lunar landing vehicle to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon.
SpaceX’s Lunar Starship
SpaceX’s Starship, a part of the Artemis program, is the largest, most powerful, and arguably the most crucial element for lunar landing.
The lunar Starship shares design elements with previous prototypes tested at Boca Chica but with essential modifications.
As the lunar Starship will not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield and arrow flaps become unnecessary.
Lunar Starship will be equipped with wider, more stable landing legs for safe touchdown on the Moon.
Also Read: SpaceX’s Second Starship
Landing thrusters will be added to steer the spacecraft during its lunar descent, as there is no lunar atmosphere for aerodynamic control. The absence of air also renders the use of Raptor engines for lunar landings impractical.
Lunar Starship will incorporate an elevator system for crew transfer and payload deployment. Given the Moon’s lower gravity, the Lunar Starship will offer ample space for a crew of two during week-long lunar stays.
The ship’s life support system, based on the Crew Dragon capsule, will be scaled up for lunar missions. Finally, a docking port in the ship’s tip will facilitate crew transfers between Orion and Starship.
Challenges of the Rocket Equation
Although SpaceX’s lunar Starship boasts tremendous power, it faces a major limitation: it cannot reach the Moon with the fuel it carries at launch. This constraint is due to the rocket equation’s complex mathematics.
SpaceX’s lunar Starship, like all space vehicles, must overcome Earth’s gravitational pull and reach orbit using its onboard fuel. This demands a considerable portion of the propellant, making it impossible to reach the Moon with the remaining fuel.
To address this challenge, SpaceX must develop a fully reusable upper stage called the tanker Starship, designed exclusively for refueling lunar Starship. This tanker variant will lack wings, a heat shield, landing legs, or a cargo fairing, focusing solely on fuel tanks.
Multiple docking maneuvers will be necessary to fill a lunar Starship, adding to the complexity and cost. To make the lunar Starship viable for human spaceflight, SpaceX must first perfect the tanker Starship.
NASA’s Progress with SLS and Orion
In contrast to SpaceX’s developmental challenges, NASA has successfully conducted an uncrewed Artemis mission with the SLS and Orion spacecraft, verifying their flight hardware.
The agency is already prepared for the first crewed Artemis launch in 2024, with Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 following suit.
The SLS core fuel tanks are in production, and the main engines and side boosters consist mainly of repurposed space shuttle components, ready for flight.
The Artemis program represents an exciting venture into space exploration, particularly the return to the Moon. SpaceX’s lunar Starship is poised to play a pivotal role, in bridging the gap between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface.
With NASA’s groundwork in place with the SLS and Orion, and SpaceX’s innovative approach, human presence on the Moon appears closer than ever.
Although the challenges are substantial, both organizations are working diligently to ensure the success of this historic mission.