NASA will test Simplified version of Starship for moon trip in 2024

Spacecraft still under SpaceX project will be the lunar module of the Artemis mission

In a presentation at NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) Annual Meeting on August 23, 2022, Dr.Lisa Watson-Morgan, Human Landing System (HLS) program manager, said that a Starship spacecraft will perform the uncrewed landing demonstration mission not necessarily identical to the vehicle that will be used to transport astronauts to the lunar surface on Artemis 3 around 2025.

SpaceX predicted up to 16 launches – including 14 resupply – with an interval of approximately 12 days for each spacecraft's lunar mission. Elon Musk, however, said the need for "16 flights is extremely unlikely." Rather, assuming that each tanker is capable of carrying 150 tonnes of payload (propellant) into orbit after a few years of project maturation, he believes it is unlikely to take more than eight tanker launches to refuel. the depot – or a total of ten launches, including the depot and the landing module.

The SpaceX spacecraft that will land on the Moon on the test flight may be a simplified version that will take people on Artemis 3: “For the unmanned demonstration, the goal is to have a safe landing,” she said. “The unmanned demo ship will not necessarily be the same Starship that we will see in the manned demo. It will be a 'skeleton' because it will only have to land. You don't have to take off." “Clearly we want to,” she added, referring to the possibility of the vehicle making a takeoff from the lunar surface, “but the requirements are for [only] it to land.”

Full-size mockup of elevator being evaluated at SpaceX facility

This uncrewed landing, scheduled for no earlier than 2024, is an important test ahead of the Artemis III mission. Watson-Morgan said the unmanned landing will take place in the south polar region, but no decision has been made on an exact location, including whether it will be one of the thirteen regions announced by NASA on August 19 for Artemis 3. A factor in the choice of one landing site, she said, was “preserving science for the future” by not interfering with any Artemis 3 landing site. There will be an opportunity to do research on the demo landing. That includes carrying a set of sensors and cameras "and potentially a payload," she said, but did not specify what types. The payload models that NASA was interested in include those "that don't require a lot of maintenance."

She said the company has been a “fantastic partner” on HLS so far, with close cooperation between the company and the agency. SpaceX has been involved in the Artemis III landing site selection process to ensure potential landing regions are compatible with the Starship. NASA, meanwhile, has its personnel, including astronauts, visiting the company's facilities for equipment reviews and testing. This includes one of the specific attributes of the designed spacecraft – the elevator needed to get from the cabin to the surface. “It's a very high lander. It doesn't look like the traditional landers we've seen in the past, so it can be difficult to reconcile that mentally," Watson-Morgan said. She assured the scientists at the meeting that the elevator design was robust, saying it was "multiple fault tolerant" and designed to operate in lunar conditions. In his presentation, Kennedy showed images of a full-scale mockup of the elevator that SpaceX built for "crew-in-the-loop" or "crew-in-the-loop" tests, including those in which the astronauts wore suits. simulated spacecraft to test the ability to get in and out of the elevator. Some aspects of the overall lunar landing architecture, however, remain unclear. The concept of operations for the landing module involves launching a spacecraft into low Earth orbit that will serve as a fuel depot, which will be fueled by subsequent launches of Starships that will serve as tankers. The Starship lunar module will launch, fill its tanks at the depot, and proceed to lunar orbit.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX, however, have said exactly how many launches will be needed for a single moon landing mission, a matter of contention during the protests against SpaceX's HLS award last year by Blue Origin. "How many? All necessary. That's the amount we're going to release,” Watson-Morgan said. NASA's requirements for HLS missions end when astronauts return to the Orion mothership. "We don't tell them to do anything with it," Kennedy said of the Starship's fate after the astronauts return from the lunar surface. “That will depend on SpaceX.”

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