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Starship and Super Heavy
A Starship vehicle is lifted into place on top of its Super Heavy booster at Boca Chica, Texas, for testing ahead of a first orbital launch attempt as soon as December. SpaceX conducts such work out in the open, but shares few details about the testing activities or why it’s conducting them. (credit: SpaceX)

In the shadows of lunar landers

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Near the point where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX is building what may be the future of spaceflight. The company released last week a promotional video for its Starbase site in Boca Chica, Texas, showing off not just the work being done on the Starship launch system but other aspects of the facility, from mission control to a coffee bar and even a sea turtle rescue effort. Company fans pored over the video, looking for hidden details and other clues about what SpaceX is up to.

“We are just getting knowledgeable” on Starship, said Kirasich. “It takes a bit to understand schedules, supply chains, critical paths, things of that nature. We’re coming up to speed with that on Starship.”

The development of Starship is in a strange superposition of open and secretive. A cadre of media and enthusiasts keep constant watch over the activities visible at Starbase—it’s hard to hide giant stainless steel rocket boosters—and document them with everything from webcams to airplane flyovers. Yet SpaceX rarely volunteers much information about the progress of that testing on a regular basis. Those who train their cameras on Starbase are left to make their best estimates about what is going on based on what they see, comparing it to what they’ve seen in the past. It’s an empirical process that is rooted in experience but also with little insight into why things are happening, like Kremlinologists who inferred power shifts in the Soviet Union based on who was standing where during Red Square parades.

There is one entity outside of SpaceX with significant insight into Starship tests at Boca Chica: NASA. The agency is betting on Starship to land humans on the Moon around the middle of this decade, and thus is closely following not just development of the lunar lander version of Starship, supported by a $2.9 billion NASA contract awarded last year, but progress on the overall Starship launch system.

“We are just getting knowledgeable” on Starship, said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, during a meeting last week of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. “It takes a bit to understand schedules, supply chains, critical paths, things of that nature. We’re coming up to speed with that on Starship.”

He noted the original schedule for Starship had about a year of schedule margin to have Starship ready in time for an Artemis 3 mission in late 2025. “We’ve given up some of that margin getting to the first flight of the Super Heavy booster,” he said, but added that production of the Orion spacecraft, and not Starship, was currently on the critical path for Artemis 3.

One reason Starship lost some of that schedule margin is from what NASA euphemistically referred to as a “high-energy event” during testing of a Super Heavy booster at Starbase in July. SpaceX conducted a “spin prime test” of all 33 Raptors in the booster, spinning up their turbopumps and flowing propellant through them, but without intentionally igniting them. Yet, propellants underneath the booster ignited in a fireball captured by cameras watching the test. SpaceX said little about it, though, beyond tweets by company founder and CEO Elon Musk, who acknowledged that the fireball was unplanned and damaged the booster.

Kirasich told the committee that the test put a “relatively large amount of fuel” into a cloud of oxygen, creating the conditions for a detonation. “That was an operational and planning oversight. SpaceX, in the early days, goes for speed above systems engineering rigor,” he said, describing it a “pause and learn” event.

“They’ve since elevated the level of systems engineering put into each one of these tests, as well as brought in some new leadership into the team down there,” he said, resulting in “additional rigor” in subsequent tests.

There is today a steady tempo of tests at Starbase leading up to a first orbital launch attempt for the vehicle. Some major milestones remaining, Kirasich said, include a static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster and a wet dress rehearsal where both Starship and Super Heavy are fueled and go through a practice countdown. SpaceX also still needs an FAA launch license.

Kirasich was optimistic that SpaceX could complete those tests and obtain its license in a matter of weeks. “Right now, the schedule would lead to an early December test flight,” he said. SpaceX, not surprisingly, has been silent on its launch plans.

“If you know the LEM and know what sleeping, eating, and hygiene were like in that vehicle, you know it wasn’t very fun,” said Kennedy. “While we can’t share details of what that looks like in Starship, I assure you it’s a good bit better than that.”

NASA is closely watching the upcoming Starship orbital launch attempt because it sees it as the first in a series of testing milestones of the vehicle leading up to Artemis 3. In addition to the orbital launch, Kirasich said the agency was tracking a later flight to test cryogenic fluid transfer in orbit, a technology required to fuel the lunar lander Starship for its flight to the Moon. NASA was also following a “longer duration” Starhip mission he did not go into details about as well as the uncrewed lunar landing demonstration that is part of its Human Landing System contract.

While Kirasich offered some new insights into Starship testing at the committee meeting, other agency officials are more guarded in other public fora. A few days earlier, at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA and SpaceX officials participated in a session to discuss their HLS work.

“One of the things that is really exciting is that Starship is going to be our next-generation vehicle that’s going to send large amounts of spacecraft into space,” said Aarti Matthews, director of Starship crew and cargo programs at SpaceX. She said the vehicle would have significant flight experience long before NASA astronauts use it to land on the Moon on Artemis 3. “We’re going to fly this vehicle so many times before we ever put people into it.”

But neither SpaceX nor NASA representatives on the panel—which lasted 20 minutes without any opportunity for audience questions—went into much detail on the status of Starship development and testing, or any issues that had come up along the way. “We like being hardware rich,” said Ed Velazquez, HLS chief engineer at SpaceX. “That allows us to do a lot of testing, and testing early.”

“We’ve been given access to all this hardware, and that is a benefit for us,” said Rene Ortega, HLS chief engineer at NASA. “It’s a big deal.” However, neither he nor others discussed details of that hardware and testing, focusing instead on the collaboration.

NASA officials are often reticent to talk about even relatively minor aspects of the Starship lunar lander design. During a panel at the AIAA ASCEND conference in Las Vegas last month, Logan Kennedy, surface lead for the HLS program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, contrasted the cramped Apollo lunar module with the spacious Starship lander.

“If you know the LEM and know what sleeping, eating, and hygiene were like in that vehicle, you know it wasn’t very fun,” he said of the Apollo lunar module. Starship will have much better accommodations, he said, but couldn’t disclose them. “While we can’t share details of what that looks like in Starship, I assure you it’s a good bit better than that.”

It's unclear what is so sensitive about the design of crew accommodations on Starship that details can’t be shared. It may, though, reflect the nature of the HLS award, where NASA is ultimately buying a service—transporting astronauts from orbit around the Moon to the lunar surface and back—rather than the lander itself. NASA has insight into development of the lander, but is limited in what it can disclose.

SpaceX is not the only company keeping details about its lunar lander plans close to the vest, but for others the reasons for secrecy are rooted in more conventional rationales of competition. NASA released in September the final version of the call for proposals for its Sustaining Lunar Development effort, which will select a company to develop a second lunar lander capable of supporting Artemis missions alongside Starship (see “A second chance at the Moon,” The Space Review, April 18, 2022.) Proposals were originally due in mid-November, but NASA pushed back the deadline last month to December 6 to allow more time for the agency to review requests by companies for the use of government facilities, a decision that will delay the selection of a winning company from May to June 2023.

“Under Appendix N we’ve been given a great opportunity to step back and take a look at everything that has been developed since the Apollo missions,” said Northrop’s Marzano, “and essentially pick what we think is a series of the best potential characteristics of each of those different concepts.”

In another panel at the Huntsville conference, NASA and four companies that previously competed on the HLS program declined to go into details about the ongoing procurement, citing “blackout” periods and the sensitivity of the overall competition. However, they did discuss work on separate awards they received last September to support technology development for lunar landers, known formally as Appendix N of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. (The Sustaining Lunar Development competition is Appendix P of NextSTEP.)

It's clear that some companies are using that earlier NextSTEP award to refine concepts from the original HLS competition for the new one. “Dynetics felt like we had a very sustainable lander approach even in the base period, so we really appreciated the opportunity to further mature that design during Appendix N,” said Andy Crocker, HLS program manager at Dynetics, during the panel. That included a recent static-fire test of the methane/liquid oxygen engine it has been working on for its lander.

The same is true for Blue Origin. “I think it helped continue the momentum that we built up under the base period,” said Ben Cichy, senior director of lunar program engineering at Blue Origin. It has continued testing of its BE-7 engine and work on other technologies needed for a lunar lander.

Blue Origin originally teamed with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman on the original HLS competition, the so-called “National Team.” But Lockheed and Northrop also won Appendix N awards to look at technologies for other lunar lander concepts, suggesting they may go in a different direction for the upcoming competition.

“Under Appendix N we’ve been given a great opportunity to step back and take a look at everything that has been developed since the Apollo missions,” said John Marzano, Northrop’s HLS program director, “and essentially pick what we think is a series of the best potential characteristics of each of those different concepts.” He said the company has been looking at two different engine designs, one based on heritage designs from TRW (a company acquired by Northrop two decades ago) that date back to the Apollo program, as well as a separate design form Sierra Space, a company that had been part of the Dynetics team for the first HLS competition.

Kirk Shireman, vice president of lunar exploration campaign at Lockheed Martin, didn’t talk much about the specific lander design it’s studying, but said it was studying the use of nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) for a transfer stage that would take the lander to lunar orbit. NTP has traditionally been associated with longer-term Mars missions, although there is growing interest in using it in cislunar space for both civil and national security space applications. “Having a high-thrust, high-Isp [specific impulse] engine is really key to our future,” he said.

None of the companies have formally announced plans to bid on Sustaining Lunar Development, although it’s likely all will participate either as leading a proposal or teaming on another’s proposal. They may wait until after the December bid deadline to disclose their plans.

The winner will demonstrate their lander as soon as the Artemis 5 mission in the late 2020s, which, like previous Starship lander missions, will go to the south pole of the Moon. One challenge of landing in the polar regions is the low sun angles that create long shadows, obscuring terrain. But those following the development of landers today, including in the sunshine of the Texas Gulf coast, are already familiar with the shadows that obscure details of their progress.

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