The US space agency has allocated funds to SpaceX to fine-tune the Starship, the largest launch vehicle and spacecraft in Earth's history. True, the money is intended for a somewhat unexpected purpose: to create a lander that will take astronauts from circumlunar orbit to the Moon itself in 2024. It is possible to predict in advance: the United States will not be able to make any lunar landing according to this scheme and within this time frame. However, government funding for Starship could turn the entire space industry of the world upside down. And even - lead to his flight to Mars in the 2020s. Let's figure out why.
NASA, in preparation for the Artemis project (landing on the moon by 2024), gave SpaceX 135 million to create a lunar lander based on Starship. As part of the same project, the agency gave $ 579 million to the Blue Origin team of Jeff Bezos, Lockheed Martin and Nortrop Grumman. Another 253 million went to the group of companies Dynetics and Sierra Nevada.
It is easy to see that SpaceX only got one-seventh of this funding, which may seem odd. In the end, other companies have to create only a lunar lander, weighing tens of tons.
But Starship is a colossus weighing a thousand tons, larger and heavier than the Saturn-5 and Apollo bundle, on which the States reached the Moon more than half a century ago. Such monstrous parameters are absolutely necessary for the new project of Elon Musk: the system is designed to fly to Mars, land on it and return back. With a smaller size, all this would be impossible.
It seems that for an over-ambitious project like Starship, such a sum is small and does not solve anything. But it only seems to be. NASA chief Jim Bridenstein specifically explained: “Many will look at funding in dollars and decide that we have favorites. But in reality this is not at all the case."
Explaining the reasons for the smaller funding for SpaceX, Bridenstein noted that these amounts were issued based on the wishes of the companies themselves, as well as the amount of work on the preparation of the lunar lander that these companies are planning in the next ten months. In other words, SpaceX received less than the rest because it asked for less than the others, and not because NASA does not like it.
Why Blue Origin and Dynetics will never have time to make a lunar module by 2024
To understand how realistic the goals that NASA has set for American companies are, it is enough to turn to history. The lunar lander was already being built in the 1960s. Then the work was performed by Nortrop Grumman, and the contract cost $ 388 million (3.2 billion in today's prices). True, the current funding is only for ten months, and Nortrop Grumman in the sixties worked on its contract for a lunar module for six years (more than 72 months).
And, nevertheless, one can be sure that it will not be possible to create a new lunar module by 2024. Moreover, even if it suddenly happened, NASA would still not be able to land on the moon this year. And that's why.
It was not in vain that we mentioned that the first lunar module (Apollo Lunar Module) was created for six long years. At the same time, it was very compact, accommodated only two astronauts and had a mass of no more than 16 tons. The current lunar landing modules have a mass of a couple of tens of tons and more. These are larger and more complex items designed for several astronauts. Yes, Blue Origin's modules are based on the existing Orion ship.
But the fact is that it was not originally thought for landing and taking off from the moon - which means that it will need a radical rework. More importantly, Orion is made by traditional American space players, and they have never in history shown the ability to do a project of this magnitude in just four years.
The second team - Dynetics and Sierra Nevada - is even less likely to make it to Trump's promised 2024 lunar landing. Their lunar lander is not based on existing designs; it will have to be built from scratch.
Plus, it's quite unusual - it has large solar panels on the outside, which can be a risky decision in lunar conditions. From the experience of landings in the 1960s and 70s, it is known that the module lifts a huge amount of fine dust due to the thrust of the engines. It is clear that the dust will settle on the batteries and reduce their energy output, but how much is impossible to say in advance.
The Apollo Lunar Module did not use solar cells as a power source, instead using batteries. Therefore, the dust was not so terrible for him. Dynetics' decision is objectively more risky, and this may stop NASA from allocating the next portion of funding under the Artemis project.
And even if all of a sudden both companies created their own landing modules in four years - although we are ready to bet money that this will not happen - it would be very difficult for them to fly to the Moon. After all, the landing modules, as well as the transfer ship for astronauts, must be launched into circumlunar orbit with an SLS Block 1B rocket. The problem is that although $ 15 billion has already been spent on the development of the SLS, it does not fly yet, and it is not known when it will start flying.
We can only say for sure that its first flight has already been postponed several times, and the number of identified technical problems of this design surprises even industry observers who are accustomed to everything. Many compare the SLS missile project with the history of the Bradley BMP, schematically shown in the film "Pentagon Wars". There are indeed a lot of rumors around the project about its corruption background and the great incompetence of the performers.
To get humans to the moon by 2024, SLS will need to conduct a series of test flights, the failure of any of which will delay rocket readiness. Today, this carrier is far from even the first of such test launches. All of this seems to make the American attempt to land on the moon by 2024 (to catch Trump's second term in office) into an extremely unlikely event.
How Starship can completely revolutionize the global space industry
Starship, strictly speaking, is generally impossible to assess as a "lunar lander" - except in quotes and with a bunch of reservations. It weighs not 16 tons, like the lunar module from the sixties, and not tens, like new ones - its mass is five thousand tons, a couple of thousand tons heavier than Saturn-5, for example.
In addition, he must not only fly to the moon, descend on it and take off back. After all, the Starship itself is a two-stage rocket that takes off from the Earth itself and flies to any target on its own. Its second stage also includes a spacecraft and a landing and takeoff module. It must land entirely on both other celestial bodies and the Earth (upon return).
In addition, unlike other modules, Starship relies on fundamentally new and never before flown technical solutions. It is equipped with Raptor methane-oxygen liquid-propellant rocket engines (LPRE), with full gasification of all propellants.
In other liquid-propellant rocket engines, even such advanced ones as the Russian RD-180, only one of the fuel components is completely converted into gas. And the higher the level of conversion of its components into gas, the higher the efficiency of the liquid-propellant rocket engine.
And methane as a rocket fuel has never been separated from the Earth before. Individual engines on it underwent ground tests in the USSR, but after its collapse, no one risked getting involved with such a new topic.
Musk, who initially aimed at using hydrogen in his "Martian rocket", would not risk it either.But it turned out that the hydrogen option is unacceptable for long flights (there are large leaks from the tanks). Kerosene is not suitable either - it simply is not on Mars. And without on-site refueling, the rocket will be too big and too expensive to fly there. Methane for Starship can easily be obtained in situ from Martian soil using the Sabatier reaction. This possibility also determined the choice of SpaceX in favor of this fuel.
Finally, the Starship should be fully reusable, and to reduce fuel consumption when landing on the tail, it will slow down in the Earth's atmosphere, turning “belly down” across the air stream. All these features should allow it to withdraw at least 100 tons at each launch - at a launch price of a few million dollars. This is by orders of magnitude lower than the existing prices for launching payloads into orbit.
From the list of Starship features, it's easy to see that we are talking about the most ambitious earthlings ever built in metal space projects. The question arises: how did NASA even think of including it in the Artemis program, according to which the landing on the moon should take place by 2024? What is the Agency counting on in general?
Oddly enough, this particular choice is relatively rational. While SpaceX's Starship prototypes are constantly being hit by emergencies, the company is making improvements very quickly. In addition, historical experience shows that SpaceX always has many minor accidents in the early stages of launch vehicle development.
If traditional players are ready to debug systems between test flights for five years, then Elon Musk's company does exactly the opposite - all changes are made "on the fly", on the fly, in a very short time. Failures on the take-off site do not discourage her, but forces her to work even harder. So she put Falcon rockets into orbit, the first launches of which were consistently failures, and she will do the same with Starship.
Bridenstine explained his decision in this way: “SpaceX is very good at making things fly, and in tests too - as well as 'good' at their ability to fail launches and fix the situation. Yes, people look at all this and ask “Oh my God, we just saw Starship explode again. Why did you sign a contract with them? " The answer is that SpaceX actually knows how to consistently test and correct the flaws identified in the tests … Their project, if successful, will completely change the whole situation [in the global space industry]. It will drastically reduce launch prices and dramatically expand access to space … I am completely confident that Musk will succeed."
Bridenstein's confidence has its roots. Recall: in 2011, NASA, considering a replacement for an unsafe shuttle, considered that, according to its traditional scheme, it could develop a new rocket in the Falcon 9 segment for four billion dollars. And by 2012, SpaceX had done the same job, spending $ 0.4 billion.
Then, until 2014, NASA skeptics said that the idea of landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 on Earth was not working. That reusable media are more expensive than disposable ones - and that the Agency has precisely established this in its experience with shuttles. And then it suddenly turned out that SpaceX had succeeded with partial reusability, and that the price of such launches is noticeably lower than one-time ones on the same Falcon 9.
Bridenstein wisely avoids the mistakes of his predecessors in terms of underestimating SpaceX (which makes him stand out from Rogozin, for example). Being an experienced person, he also understands that no American landing on the moon by 2024 will work for the competitors of this company: the entire history of the United States and the world knows no precedents for such a rapid implementation of the landing of people on another celestial body.
In the remaining four years, there is as much to be done as the traditional players of American space have never done in such a short time. They did not even when their efforts were led by Wernher von Braun, the designer of the first earthlings rocket, which reached space back in 1944. Moreover, they will not be able to do this now.
But investments in Starship for NASA may well be justified.Yes, it is doubtful that Musk will have time to bring his project to full readiness by 2024. His company is good at making rockets, but Starship must not only fly, but also have a powerful life support system.
The sealed habitable internal volume of this giant is approaching a thousand cubic meters, it is slightly larger than that of the ISS. This means that a complex system for controlling the composition of air and its regeneration will be required. SpaceX has never made life support systems for such large volumes, and this task is technically very difficult.
Starship may well start flying by 2024. But it is far from a fact that its developers will have time to bring all systems to such a level of testing so that they can safely put a crew there for flights near the Moon.
Still, even if Trump's Napoleonic plans to land on the moon in 2024 are thwarted, NASA's funds received by SpaceX will be of great benefit. They will allow the company and the Agency by the mid-2020s to perfect the launch vehicle and spacecraft suitable for flights to both the Moon and Mars. This means that the hard series of failures that have followed the Agency's media and programs since 2003 can finally be forgotten.