In a recent joint meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board, Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, expressed growing concerns regarding the readiness of SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander for the upcoming Artemis 3 Mission.
The mission, slated for late 2025, aims to achieve the first human landing on the moon in over 50 years. However, due to the significant amount of work required to prepare the vehicle, there is a possibility that the mission may be delayed until sometime in 2026.
Concerns About Launches
One of the main concerns raised by NASA is the number of launches SpaceX needs to conduct in order to prepare the Starship for Artemis 3.
Each Starship Lander mission requires launching the lander itself, along with multiple “tanker” Starships that will be used to refuel the lander in Earth Orbit before its journey to the moon. Prior to Artemis 3, SpaceX plans to carry out an uncrewed Starship lunar landing and demonstrate cryogenic fluid transfer in Earth orbit.
“The number of launches required is substantial. They have a significant number of launches to go, and that, of course, gives me concern about the December 2025 date for Artemis 3.”—Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development
Further emphasizing these concerns, Free mentioned the difficulties SpaceX has encountered. However, he did not provide specific details regarding these challenges.
It’s worth noting that SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle is currently grounded following its first integrated launch on April 20. The vehicle experienced multiple engine failures during flight and was ultimately destroyed by its flight termination system (FTS) just four minutes after liftoff.
Investigation and Updates
NASA has assigned personnel to investigate the launch failure, and Free recently met with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official to discuss the matter.
Although the FAA is doing everything possible to address the issue, the agency is evaluating the launch license for SpaceX’s next mission. Free highlighted the need to convey the comprehensive picture of the overall requirements for achieving a successful human landing, despite any setbacks.
Public updates regarding the investigation or a potential timeline for SpaceX’s next launch attempt have not been provided by either the FAA or SpaceX.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, mentioned during an online discussion on April 29 that the company could potentially be ready for another launch attempt in a “couple of months”. However, considering the current progress observed at SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, it seems unlikely that the company will meet this schedule.
In addition to recognizing our #Artemis I suppliers last week, I visited other vendors in Southern California to discuss future Artemis missions. One of those vendors? @SpaceX. Great to talk with the team about the human landing system and dive deeper on individual components. pic.twitter.com/MNNb0UwcOP— Jim Free (@JimFree) May 10, 2023
Concerning the development of the lunar lander version of Starship, Free revealed that SpaceX and NASA have postponed a critical design review until after the company successfully demonstrates cryogenic refueling in Earth orbit. Although Free did not disclose the details of the updated schedule provided by SpaceX, he highlighted the agency’s ongoing review process.
Fixed-Price For The Win
When questioned about meeting the target date for Artemis 3, Free expressed his confidence in SpaceX’s ability to eventually deliver the Starship Lander.
He also noted that the fixed-price structure of the Human Landing System award protects NASA from additional costs. However, if SpaceX fails to meet their specified timeline, NASA will not benefit from the fixed-price contract, except for avoiding additional expenses.
The agency continues to closely monitor the situation while collaborating with SpaceX to ensure the success of the ambitious Artemis Program.