No NASA official would ever admit this in public, but the 2010s have been a frustrating decade for human spaceflight.
After the space shuttle retired in 2011, as most everyone knows, NASA had no way to get its astronauts into space. But the frustrations ran deeper. Even as the agency scrambled to launch into low Earth orbit, it was tasked with sending astronauts further afield into 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 frequently talked about going to the Moon and Mars, but that was all they did—talk.
Now, however, things are starting to change. We are still in early days, but there is increasing agreement at NASA about the need to focus less on transportation—the “how” of getting there—and more on what to do when astronauts get to their destinations. This is because, as the transportation pieces fall in line, NASA can think about 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 leads 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 safely in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing four astronauts back to Earth and completing the first operational mission of NASA’s new transportation system to low Earth orbit. This frees NASA to plan more fully for what its astronauts do on the station and how best to support companies that want to build a new generation of commercial stations.
Moreover, NASA has made significant strides into deep space as well. After spending a decade and, yes, tens of billions 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 decision to select SpaceX to modify its Starship vehicle to land humans on the Moon.
This lander decision comes with two striking implications. The first is that, with the final hardware choices made, NASA can begin pivoting toward what it will accomplish on the Moon—and eventually Mars. And the second outcome of selecting SpaceX is that NASA now has the budget wherewithal to both target a 2024 landing as well as craft a lunar program beyond the dreams of even wide-eyed selenophiles.
That’s transportation sorted
NASA developed the Apollo architecture—a large Saturn V rocket, the Apollo capsule, and 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 in terms of costs. In the 1970s, NASA designed and built 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 was very expensive to fly and maintain, at an average of more than $1 billion per mission.
By 2003, after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA and space policy decision makers in Washington, DC, began to think seriously about what came next. A clear direction has since emerged from the White House and Congress: NASA should develop a plan to explore the Moon and eventually Mars, with humans, in a sustainable way. This is both an enormous technical challenge and a fiscal one. No NASA human space program has ever been particularly frugal.
With this mandate to return humans to deep space, since the early 2000s, NASA has been studying transportation systems and awarding contracts to develop new spaceflight hardware. These efforts are finally bearing fruit. SpaceX and Boeing, through fixed-price contracts in the “commercial crew” program, will get astronauts into low Earth orbit. For the Moon, NASA has its baseline architecture, too. Orion and the Space Launch System rocket will get astronauts to lunar orbit, and Starship will land them on the Moon.
Notably, selecting Starship also potentially provides NASA with a redundant launch system for getting astronauts all the way from the surface of the Earth to the Moon. SpaceX is designing Starship and its Super Heavy rocket to launch humans from Earth.
Questions remain, of course. The commercial crew program is only getting started, and Boeing must prove the viability of its Starliner spacecraft. For deep space, the contractors for Orion, SLS, and Starship must execute on their development plans and fly their vehicles. But it is nonetheless meaningful for NASA to be able to tell Congress, its international partners, and the general public that the agency is moving forward. Transportation may be the essential first step toward exploration, but it is not the goal.
And only when you solve transportation can one have a meaningful conversation about what to do when you get there. Now is the time for the space community to have such a discussion. The possibilities for what we might do are tantalizing.
NASA selected SpaceX for its Human Landing System contract on April 16, awarding the company $2.89 billion for Starship development costs, one uncrewed demonstration test, and one crewed landing as early as 2024. This seems like a remarkable value.
Three days later, NASA’s inspector general released a report that included the cost of the Human Landing System for NASA through this first landing. The report estimated that NASA would spend $17.3 billion for lander development and the first human landing. So with its fixed-price award to SpaceX, NASA saved more than $14 billion in its projected costs for the Artemis landing. Effectively, this means that NASA could squeeze a Moon program into its existing budget rather than needing billions of dollars more in annual budgets from Congress.
This cost savings is but one potential benefit of Starship. The other is an unparalleled capability to deliver cargo to the Moon. After refueling in low Earth orbit, a fully reusable Starship carrying cargo only—meaning it flies to the Moon, unloads its payload, and returns to Earth—could carry more than 50 tons to the lunar surface, according to estimates by physicist Casey Handmer. An expendable Starship, which lands on the Moon and stays, could bring more than 200 tons to the Moon.
Two hundred tons! If it’s difficult to conceptualize how much cargo this is, consider the lunar module used by the Apollo Program. In a “truck” configuration for cargo only, it was estimated that this vehicle could bring about 5 tons down to the lunar surface. So Starship would have the capacity to bring more than 40 times as much material down to the Moon, per mission.
This is something that scientists and engineers who think about development on the Moon (and who 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 no longer have to consider brief forays on the Moon but could build bona fide cities and allow commercial activity to thrive. Thales Alenia could build large, pressurized domes for habitats. Nokia could build its LTE/4G network on the Moon. We could have mining, manufacturing, space tourism, and so much more. The cost of getting people and materials to the Moon has always been the limiting factor for any of these ventures to take place.
Now that NASA has chosen its hardware, Neal said the space agency and broader community should think about how best to use this high-volume transportation system. He believes an important step for NASA would be to commit to not just “visiting” the Moon but staying. “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 transportation “capabilities” to actual operations will not always be easy. It may prove especially difficult for Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which views its role as “transportation” within the NASA firmament. But at the end of the day, NASA is about exploration, not transportation systems. Flying many more missions into deep space will open new opportunities for important government work.
For example, Marshall has a tremendous facility—the Environmental Control and Life Support System—that specializes in regenerative life support. If humans are serious about living on the Moon, surviving six-month journeys to Mars, or settling on the surface of Mars itself, we’re going to need to learn to live off the land. Recycling air and water, solving waste issues, and more are essential to that. Perhaps Marshall could focus less on getting us there and more on keeping us alive once we’ve made it.
That’s the more rewarding stuff, anyway.