Recently NASA announced that five more companies had been added to the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS). One such company, SpaceX, has raised some eyebrows in aerospace circles because Elon Musk’s rocket business is offering the Starship as a lunar lander.
Companies that are included in the CLPS program will be able to bid on missions that will deliver small instrument packages and rovers to the lunar surface. One upcoming mission is a rover called Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will prospect for ice at the lunar south pole.
The CLPS payloads will mass upwards of about 1,000 kilograms. But Starship is advertised as being able to deliver 100 metric tons to the lunar surface. Using Starship to deliver a CLPS payload to the moon is the equivalent of using a moving van when a pickup truck would suffice.
Ars Technica explains that Starship’s inclusion in the CLPS program offers “SpaceX some validation that if it fully develops the ambitious Starship vehicle, NASA will be a willing customer in the future. This may, in turn, help SpaceX raise development funds from investors.”
Why would NASA want to validate Starship? Thus far, the space agency has barely acknowledged the project’s existence but demurred at any thought of incorporating it in its own programs. That stance has clearly changed and perhaps more extensively than NASA would care to admit.
Currently, NASA plans to land “the first woman and the next man” on the lunar surface by 2024. But that deadline has received considerable skepticism from Congress. The space agency will need about $20 billion or so extra in the next five years, including $1.6 billion in the current fiscal year. So far, the extra money that NASA needs to start letting contracts for a crewed lunar lander has been excluded from the continuing resolutions that Congress has passed. If the money is not forthcoming, the 2024 date will not be achievable.
That is where the SpaceX Starship comes in.
SpaceX has an aggressive development schedule for Starship. The company plans to fly a prototype to Earth orbit in 2020. In 2022, the company plans to land a Starship on the lunar surface. In 2023, the spaceship will fly a group of passengers around the moon, paid for by a Japanese fashion designer. Then, in 2024, SpaceX intends to land people on the lunar surface, coincidentally in the same year NASA intends to achieve the first crewed lunar landing since 1972.
One can envision Elon Musk, as 2024 dawns and the first private lunar expedition looms, calling the NASA administrator and offering him a proposition. “We’re going to the moon. Want to come?”
If NASA is still struggling with its own lunar mission because of inadequate funding, or other possible causes, the head of the space agency would be forgiven if he replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
Of course, many things must happen for this happy scenario to occur. NASA is not the only organization to have problems keeping to a development schedule. SpaceX has been late delivering flight hardware, too. The commercial-crew Dragon is one example.
Still, whether the scenario described above happens in 2024 or some later date does not matter if it comes to pass. NASA and SpaceX returning to the moon together would constitute a triumph of the concept of private/public space partnerships that began with the COTS program, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station. The concept has continued with commercial crew, due at last to start next year, and finally with CLPS.
A NASA/SpaceX return to the moon would offer a rebuke to politicians who have mandated that the space agency use expensive, obsolete hardware like the Space Launch System and then refuse to fund landers to get Americans the rest of the way to the moon. The humiliation will be a lesson for the political class.
The question is, will they take the lesson to heart and do better in the future? One can only hope so.