NASA says lunar landing missions require approximately 20 launches

BERLIN — As SpaceX prepares for its next Starship test flight, a NASA official said using that vehicle to land on the moon Artemis would require launches “in the teens,” a much higher number than company leadership previously claimed.

In a presentation during a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Board’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee on November 17, Lakeisha Hawkins, assistant deputy administrator in NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office, said the company will have to conduct spacecraft launches from its current pad in Texas and one that… It was built at Kennedy Space Center to send a lander to the moon for Artemis 3.

SpaceX’s concept of operations for the Starship lunar lander it is developing for the Human Landing System (HLS) program requires multiple launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. One launch will place a fuel depot into orbit, followed by multiple other launches of tanker versions of the spacecraft, transporting methane and liquid oxygen fuel to the depot. This will be followed by the lander version of the spacecraft, which will meet the depot and fill its tanks before going to the Moon.

Exactly how many launches would be needed has been a point of debate since NASA selected Starship for the first HLS prize in 2021. Neither NASA nor SpaceX have provided firm numbers recently. a A paper on the HLS program presented by NASA at the 2023 International Astronautical CongressFor example, it only mentioned a “series of reusable Starship tanker variants” that would be launched to fill the depot before launching the Starship lander, without giving a number.

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“The number of launches is in the teens,” Hawkins said. She suggested this was due to concerns about boiling off, or loss of cooled liquid fuel, in the depot.

“In order to be able to meet the required schedule, as well as manage fuel boils etc., a rapid succession of fuel launches will be needed,” she said.

This schedule will require launches from both the existing Starship pad in Boca Chica, Texas, as well as the pad SpaceX is building at KSC’s Launch Complex 39A, next to the existing pad used to launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. “We should be able to launch from these two locations, on a six-day cycle,” she said.

Critics of NASA’s choice of Starship for the HLS have pointed to the number of launches as a weakness in the architecture. The GAO, in rejecting Blue Origin and Dynetics’ protests for the Starship HLS award in 2021, noted that SpaceX required 16 launches overall for the Starship lunar landing mission.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk disagreed, calling the need for 16 launches “extremely unlikely.” In an August 2021 social media post. He said a maximum of eight tankers would be needed to refuel the lander, adding that the number could reach four.

Development of the Starship lander is often considered to be on the critical path for the Artemis 3 mission, since both the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft have flown. However, earlier in the committee hearing, Jim Frey, associate director of Exploration Systems Development, said there are many factors that go into this mission.

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“We have a whole bunch of new things we’re coming together for [Artemis] 3″, from the new spacesuits being developed by Axiom Space to the addition of a docking port on Orion. “Yes, the lander is very important. We can’t go anywhere without it. But we also can’t go anywhere without suits.

His comments came a day before the scheduled launch of the second Starship/Super Heavy integrated vehicle, designated OFT-2, which is a major milestone in Starship development and thus for Artemis. “I hope everyone at all these programs will cheer about it,” he said of the launch. “We need OFT-2 to go.”

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