NASA has unveiled long-term plans for the Space Launch System, the massive rocket that it has been developing since around 2010. After spending billions of dollars on it, NASA plans to launch the SLS for the first time in February 2022. NASA wants to sell the SLS, fly it once a year for the Artemis Program, and pay half the cost. The space agency intends to continue doing so for at least the next 30 years.
Meanwhile, a federal judge has dismissed Blue Origin’s case against NASA and SpaceX over the Human Landing System award to Elon Musk’s business. Work on the SpaceX HLS, based on the Starship rocket currently being constructed in Boca Chica, may begin.
Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos was polite in defeat, remarking that it was “not the conclusion we wanted, but we accept the court’s ruling, and wish NASA and SpaceX complete success on the contract.” When the HLS second-round competition begins, Blue Origin will have another opportunity. Congress must fund that round. Now that the Blue Origin case has been resolved, NASA and SpaceX can continue the Artemis return to the moon program.
The following is an update from Ars Technica on the status of that effort: The unmanned Artemis I mission will be launched around the moon in February to test the Space Launch System and Orion. Then, in May 2024, Artemis II will go on a historical journey around the moon with a crew of three Americans and one Canadian – the first since Apollo 17 in 1972.
The next lunar landing, Artemis III, has been delayed until at least 2025. NASA cited the litigation, budget deficits, and technological issues as justifications for postponing the 2024 deadline. Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to launch the Starship into orbit as soon as the FAA overcomes environmental issues, expected to be early next year. Eventually, an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface will be sent by a lunar Starship. The mission will prepare the way for SpaceX’s Human Landing System, which would return Americans to the moon as early as 2025.
The lunar Starship will be sent into low-Earth orbit, according to the plan. The spacecraft will then spend nearly a month refueling before being sent into lunar orbit. The Orbit Launch System will then launch an Orion spacecraft into space. At least two people will transfer to the SpaceX HLS once the Orion docks with the lunar Starship. They will go to the lunar surface on a rocket ship. Americans will walk on the moon in front of billions of TV screens for the first time in nearly 50 years.
The issue is that each Orion/SLS journey to the moon can only occur once a year. Furthermore, NASA intends to reduce the cost of an Artemis mission to between $1 billion and $1.5 billion each trip, which is an enormous sum.
According to Ars Technica, there is a fascinating alternative: the SpaceX Starship launches to low-Earth orbit and is fuelled as previously. In the alternative scenario, the Starship transports a crew of astronauts straight from LEO to the moon, eliminating the Orion/SLS system requirement. The cost would be orders of magnitude lower than the present NASA proposal, and it could occur multiple times each year.