“Skeleton” Starship Lunar Lander Demo Not Required To Take Off From Moon – SpacePolicyOnline.com

NASA will not require SpaceX to demonstrate that the Starship Human Landing System can take off from the lunar surface before being used for the Artemis III mission, and the test vehicle will be a “skeleton” of the actual lander. NASA selected SpaceX to build the lander for Artemis III preceded by an unmanned test flight, but the head of NASA’s HLS program said the demo does not include a launch today. She also emphasized that Starship is still in the design and development phase with many challenges ahead, not ready to go, as some seem to believe.

SpaceX’s two-stage space transport system Starship stacked for the first time, Aug. 6, 2021, Boca Chica, TX. The silver first stage is called Super Heavy and the second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship, a name also used to refer to the two together. Credit: SpaceX

Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of the HLS program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, spoke this morning with NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group along with other NASA officials about the recent selection of 13 regions on the moon’s south pole for the Artemis III landing.

Artemis III will return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. NASA currently expects the landing in late 2025, just over three years from now.

SpaceX has been developing Starship for several years now. Between December 2020 and May 2021, five test flights of prototypes of the second stage took place to an altitude of approximately 10 kilometers. The first four went up in flames, but the fifth succeeded. The much larger first stage has not yet flown, although “fit checks” of the fully assembled vehicle have taken place at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, TX test facility.

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that launching Starship into orbit is one of his two main goals this year.

SpaceX plans to use Starship for many purposes – launching satellites into orbit, as well as people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The Starship name is used for both the entire vehicle and just the second stage.

It is the second phase going to the moon.

However, the spacecraft is not designed to fly directly to the moon like NASA’s Space Launch System. Instead, the first stage just puts it in orbit. To move forward, it will need to refuel with propellant at a yet-to-be-built orbiting fuel depot. Other spaceships are needed to bring propellant to the depot.

Watson-Morgan described the concept of operations for the Starship’s Artemis III mission, beginning with the launch of the fuel depot, then a series of “propellant aggregation” launches to fill the depot, and then the launch of the Starship headed for the moon will go.

Her slide shows four launches of propellant aggregation, but that’s not a fixed number. “How many? No matter how many are needed, that’s how many will be launched,” she said.

Source: NASA

SpaceX and NASA are teaming up to demonstrate cryogenic fluid management in orbit and “we still have many challenges to overcome.”

“You might…maybe get the feeling that their… [SpaceX’s] system is ready to use. And it isn’t yet. We are in design and development. … We are still in development. We are still changing. And we’ll get smarter and we’ll have an incredible launch and an incredible landing.” Lisa Watson-Morgan

That landing of two NASA astronauts on Artemis III will be preceded by an unmanned test scheduled for 2024, but she explained that NASA only requires SpaceX to demonstrate a safe landing. Do not take off.

“The unmanned demo is not necessarily planned to be the same spaceship you see for the manned demo. It becomes a skeleton, because it just has to land. It doesn’t have to rise back up, just for clarity. So obviously we want it, but the requirements are for it to land.” Lisa Watson-Morgan

SpaceX illustration of its Starship lunar lander. Note the astronaut at the bottom of the lander for scale.

The discussion took place in the context of scientific research that can be carried out on the Artemis III mission. In collaboration with SpaceX and a select group of scientists, NASA has chosen 13 regions on the moon’s south pole where the landing could take place. NASA is now seeking input from the wider lunar science community to narrow the list.

Many factors come into play, especially lighting conditions, which are very different from the six Apollo landing sites closer to the equator. The South Pole is of great scientific importance and its permanently shaded areas are thought to contain water ice that could be used to support human outposts and other purposes.

Shown here is a representation of 13 candidate landing regions for Artemis III. Each region is approximately 9.3 by 9.3 miles (15 by 15 kilometers). A landing site is a location within those regions with a radius of about 100 meters. Credit: NASA

One of the scientists in the audience expressed concern about whether the crew will actually be able to go to and from the surface to do science. The spaceship is very long and has an elevator to go up and down.

Watson-Morgan assured it will work. The elevator is multi-fault tolerant, she said, and NASA and SpaceX are working hand in hand to test it, including with crews.

Logan Kennedy, HLS Surface Lead at Marshall, showed two slides of the progress. The second slide shows what it will look like the next time humans set foot on the moon, he said.

He also expressed his confidence in the elevator. A concern is moon dust, which sticks to everything and could contaminate the mechanisms. The elevator is designed to work in that environment, he stressed, with a lot of conservatism built into the models, because less is known about the lunar bottom — regolith — at the South Pole than about the Apollo sites.

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