Featured Image Source: SpaceX / TESMANIAN
NASA has not launched astronauts to the moon in almost 50 years. SpaceX is working to develop a spacecraft that will enable astronauts to build a permanent base on our nearest celestial neighbor. NASA awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to develop a lunar-optimized variant of its Starship spacecraft (pictured above). The agency plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program. SpaceX is developing Starship at Boca Chica Beach where stainless-steel prototypes are undergoing testing. This week, a South Texas resident captured a photo of a white-colored Starship prototype that features NASA's retro red 'worm' logo alongside a United States flag, pictured below. The logo suggests SpaceX is already building the first Starship Lunar Lander prototype.
NASA Artemis Moon lander anyone?🚀🌙 pic.twitter.com/ORhSMLq12v— Austin Barnard🚀 (@austinbarnard45) October 22, 2020
A notable difference between the Mars Starship design (pictured below) versus the lunar-optimized Starship is that it does not feature the aerodynamic fins, nor an extra heat-shield coat like the Mars’ vehicle design. – "A lunar optimized Starship can fly many times between the surface of the Moon and lunar orbit without flaps or heat shielding required for Earth return. With large habitable and storage volume, Starship is capable of delivering significant amounts of cargo for research and to support robust operations on the lunar surface to enable a sustainable Moonbase," SpaceX stated.
Earlier this year, the founder and Chief Engineer at SpaceX Elon Musk explained how Starship would need to undergo modifications to land on the moon. "We’re working on new legs. Wider stance and able to auto-level. Important for leaning into wind or landing on rocky and pitted surfaces," he said. "Forward thrusters are to stabilize ship when landing in high winds. If goal is max payload to moon per ship, no heatshield or flaps [fins] or big gas thruster packs are needed," Musk explained in June, "No need to bring early ships back. They can serve as part of moon base alpha."
Forward thrusters are to stabilize ship when landing in high winds. If goal is max payload to moon per ship, no heatshield or flaps or big gas thruster packs are needed. No need to bring early ships back. They can serve as part of moon base alpha.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 8, 2020
"The SpaceX human lander design is a single-stage solution with Starship, their fully reusable launch and landing system designed for travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in April, "The proposal included an in-space propellant transfer demonstration and uncrewed test landing."
On October 14, NASA shared it awarded SpaceX a $53.2 million contract to demonstrate how the lunar-optimized Starship will be refueled in space. "NASA has selected Starship for a propellant transfer demonstration! Combining Starship’s rapid reusability with orbital refilling is critical to economically transporting large numbers of crew and cargo to the Moon and Mars," SpaceX announced. Under the contract, SpaceX will provide NASA with a "large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen, between tanks on a Starship vehicle..." the agency wrote in a press release. "NASA’s commercial partners will refine their lander concepts through the contract base period ending in February 2021. During that time, the agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions."