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It has been half a century since humanity last set foot on the lunar surface. NASA’s Artemis program aims to land astronauts on the Lunar South Pole by 2025. NASA is working with more than 1,100 companies across the United States and at every NASA center to develop the powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, designed to launch astronauts to lunar orbit. The agency also contracted SpaceX to develop a lunar-optimized Starship Human Landing System (HLS) to land astronauts on the Moon’s surface. NASA has a flight plan to utilize both launch systems. Flight profile is outlined in a graphic shown below -Figure 2.
NASA Orion Space Launch System and SpaceX Starship Human Landing System.
To prepare for the lunar mission NASA will first conduct the Artemis I mission, an uncrewed flight test of the SLS/Orion vehicle scheduled for Spring this year. Then by 2023, NASA plans to launch the Artemis II mission; It will be the first crewed demonstration flight of SLS/Orion around the Moon. SpaceX will perform the first orbital flight test of Starship this year and the first demonstration flights around the moon in 2023. After those demo missions are successful NASA will conduct the Artemis III mission, which will land a pair of astronauts on the Moon. Initially, NASA planned to conduct the first crewed lunar landing in 2024 but it has been delayed until 2025 due to a wide-range of factors, including the Coronavirus pandemic. The agency needs enough time to ensure SLS/Orion and SpaceX’s Starship HLS are able to transport astronauts’ safely.
The graphic pictured below [Figure 2] outlines how NASA plans to use the Orion Space Launch System and SpaceX Starship to return humanity to the Moon. During the crewed Artemis III mission, the Space Launch System rocket will liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to launch four astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft for a multi-day journey to lunar orbit. Simultaneously, SpaceX will launch Starship HLS, alongside a fleet of uncrewed Starship 'fuel tanker' vehicles from Starbase at Boca Chica, Texas. The vehicles will be filled with cryogenic propellant for in-orbit refueling of the HLS spacecraft. Starship is fueled with a combination of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen. As seen in the graphic below: First, SpaceX will launch a Starship to serve as a propellant depot in low Earth orbit. Second, SpaceX will launch multiple Starships that will serve as tankers to deliver propellant to the stainless-steel depot vehicle that will be orbiting our planet. Third, the HLS Starship launches to low Earth orbit where it will dock to the depot and receive propellant.
Once fueled, HLS will initiate a three-day voyage to lunar orbit 240,000 miles away from Earth, where it will wait for the astronauts aboard Orion to arrive. Once Starship and Orion are both in lunar orbit, Orion will dock with the Starship HLS nose cone docking port to allow 2 of the 4 astronauts to enter Starship. Then Orion will undock and Starship HLS will land on the Lunar South Pole and the first woman and next man will explore the Moon for around a week and collect samples while Orion remains in lunar orbit with the other two astronauts monitoring the mission. To return to Earth, Starship HLS will lift off from the moon's surface and meet Orion in lunar orbit again. Orion will dock with Starship and the astronauts return to Orion. The Orion spacecraft will transport the astronauts home with a traditional parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean that will ensure the astronauts' safety.
NASA awarded SpaceX $2.89 billion to develop the Starship HLS, as part of the HLS contract it paid the company $50 million for an "on-orbit large scale cryogenic propellant management and transfer demonstration” that is planned before the end of 2022. Under the contract, SpaceX will demonstrate how the Starship HLS will be refueled in Low Earth Orbit ahead of the Artemis III mission. The company plans to refuel the spacecraft connected back-to-back with another Starship that will carry propellant. NASA says that SpaceX will conduct a “large-scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic propellant, specifically liquid oxygen, between tanks on a Starship vehicle.”
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About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.