Its been almost fifty years since NASA’s Apollo missions, when humans set foot on the moon. The agency is now working to take humans back to the lunar surface under a new space program called ‘Artemis’ – in Greek mythology she is Apollo’s twin sister and the goddess of the Moon. A couple of months ago NASA awarded three contracts to develop human landing systems to launch the first woman and next man to the moon’s surface by the year 2024. The three American companies that earned a contract are SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics. “With these contract awards, America is moving forward with the final step needed to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, including the incredible moment when we will see the first woman set foot on the lunar surface,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated, “This is the first time since the Apollo era that NASA has direct funding for a human landing system, and now we have companies on contract to do the work for the Artemis program.”
SpaceX won an Artemis contract valued at $135 million to develop a lunar optimized version of Starship to conduct cargo and crew missions. “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,” the agency detailed in a press release.
A digital depiction of the Starship lunar lander iteration shows significant differences from the Starship that SpaceX will develop for Mars missions. Elon Musk, the founder and chief engineer at SpaceX, explained how Starship would need to undergo modifications to land on the moon, differing from the Mars Starship version - “We’re working on new legs. Wider stance & able to auto-level. Important for leaning into wind or landing on rocky & pitted surfaces.” A notable difference between the Starship design that will conduct missions to Mars VS. 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,” SpaceX says. The Starships that will land on the moon will be used to build a SpaceX lunar base - “No need to bring early ships back. They can serve as part of moon base alpha,” he said. The Starship lunar lander also features “forward thrusters.” Musk explained – “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.”
Last year during a NASA teleconference in November, the SpaceX President and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell stated:
“We definitely want to land it on the Moon before 2022. We want to… stage cargo there to make sure that there are resources for the [NASA] folks that ultimately land on the Moon by 2024, if things go well, so that’s the aspirational time frame.”
Ultimately, SpaceX aims to use Starship to transform humanity into a multi-planet species, the craft is designed to carry one hundred passengers and tons of cargo. “We’re leveraging NASA initially for cargo and science, so I think it’s a nice stepping stone and a nice path to getting comfortable with the technology … so that it’s reliable enough to put people on-board,” Shotwell said.
Starship is under development at the company’s south Texas facility located at Boca Chica Beach along the border with Mexico in Brownsville, TX.