SpaceX’s next test flight with its Starship vehicle is drawing attention for its potential role in NASA’s Artemis lunar missions. A recent statement from NASA official Lakiesha Hawkins highlights a significant increase in the number of required launches for Artemis lunar landings, suggesting “in the high teens” compared to SpaceX’s previous estimates.
At a NASA Advisory Council meeting, Hawkins, from NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office, outlined the necessity of multiple Starship launches. The plan involves using SpaceX’s Texas pad and a new one at Kennedy Space Center. This strategy is crucial for sending a lander to the moon for Artemis 3.
The operational concept for Starship’s lunar lander, part of the Human Landing System (HLS) program, demands several launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. This includes launching a propellant depot into orbit, followed by tanker Starships that will transfer fuel to the depot. The lander version of Starship will then rendezvous with this depot for refueling before heading to the moon.
The exact number of necessary launches has been a subject of debate. NASA’s recent presentation at the International Astronautical Congress didn’t specify a number, only mentioning the need for multiple launches. Hawkins’s estimate of “high teens” is driven by concerns over propellant loss, known as boiloff, at the depot.
Achieving the Artemis schedule and managing fuel loss requires rapid, successive launches. These will occur from both Boca Chica, Texas, and Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, on a six-day rotation.
NASA’s choice of Starship for the HLS program has been criticized, primarily due to the high number of launches. The Government Accountability Office, responding to protests from Blue Origin and Dynetics, noted SpaceX’s plan for 16 launches per lunar mission. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, however, disagreed, stating in 2021 that a maximum of eight tanker launches should suffice, possibly as few as four.
The development of the Starship lander is a crucial component of Artemis 3, alongside other elements like new spacesuits from Axiom Space and a docking port on Orion. Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, emphasized the importance of these various components for the mission’s success.
The upcoming launch of the integrated Starship/Super Heavy vehicle, IFT-3, is a key milestone for Starship’s development and, consequently, for the Artemis program. NASA officials and teams across various projects are keenly anticipating the success of this launch.