NASA managers tasked with humanity’s next journey into deep space spoke positively about Starship’s recent test flight, the data gathered, and the resulting design changes that will be incorporated into the next test launch.
While launch site repairs continue at Starbase ahead of the continuation of the test campaign that is targeting an orbital success this year, SpaceX is expected to launch a large number of Starships before entering the human landing system (HLS) contract, involving numerous tanker vehicles and a crewed lander.
SpaceX was awarded the HLS Option A contract in 2021, which calls for a demonstration of the various elements of the system.
This includes docking the lander to the Orion spacecraft, transferring the crew from Orion to the lander in lunar orbit, conducting an extravehicular activity after landing on the lunar surface, and returning the crew and other materials from the surface.
Option A included both uncrewed and crewed demonstration missions.
This contract was followed by SpaceX winning HLS Option B in late 2022, which covers the Artemis IV mission to the Moon. NASA is set to announce a second HLS lander option “to develop a sustainable human landing system for the Artemis V Moon mission,” on Friday.
The current NASA schedule calls for the uncrewed lunar demo mission to be launched in 2024, ahead of 2025’s Artemis III mission.
The individual missions will require both the lunar Starship and multiple Starship tanker launches to allow for the former to be refilled on orbit ahead of its trip to the Moon. However, the exact number of launches needed for refueling remains unclear.
Ahead of the HLS missions, Starship has an ambitious test series in work, now finally underway thanks to the launch of Booster 7 and Ship 24.
Amit Kshatriya, deputy associate administrator for the Moon to Mars program in the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, updated the NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration and Operations this week.
“[There is] a lot of hardware moving through the Starbase. Of course, you all know they had a flight test. They got up to about 39 kilometers in terms of apogee before the end of the mission,” noted Kshatriya.
“We got a ton of data out of that mission, and those guys are looking forward to the next ship and booster in terms of getting them together and incorporating design changes.”
Booster 9 and a yet-to-be-confirmed ship are set to fly that next mission, with the former already known to sport a large number of improvements compared to the previous booster.
“There are so many improvements from Booster 7 to Booster 9, literally hundreds, some major ones,” noted Musk during a recent Twitter Spaces. “We’ve moved from hydraulic TVC to electric from Booster 7 to Booster 9. The entire heatshield structure on the base is completely redesigned.”
Booster 9 currently resides inside the mega bay at Starbase’s production site, along with additional boosters and ships, all waiting their turn.
The launch site is the key focus of ongoing work to prepare for the next test. However, one item of note is the recertification of the flight termination system (FTS), required after Booster 7 refused to die when the FTS was activated after it started to tumble out of control late during first stage flight.
A test that was likely related to this effort took place at SpaceX’s Masseys test site this week, with the B6 test tank successfully split open during the test.
“We have a couple of team members in the HLS program that are engaged with the FAA and SpaceX,” noted Kshatriya, before adding they are mostly observing and reporting that SpaceX’s team already knows what they are doing. “I mean, they’re very, very good. And so they understand kind of how to incorporate their data.”
Providing the launch site modifications allow for a pad turnaround without the requirement for a lengthy period of repairs, SpaceX could potentially launch several flights from Starbase before the year is out.
This would pave the way for a refilling test to occur ahead of entering the HLS demo.
“They’re working through a leak and boil-off and how that affects the kind of propellant aggregation phase of the mission. So I don’t want to go too far down the road in terms of, you know, talking about that until they settle on their engineering side,” added Kshatriya, adding work is well underway on the crew version of Starship, per a reference to the life support system.
“SpaceX is an integral partner. I spent 12 hours with the team at Hawthorne and got to see what’s going on there. I mean, in terms of Raptor production and all their ECLSS [Environmental Control and Life Support System] and other development for Starship.”
“I will tell you is that we [NASA] are fully partnered with them in terms of how they’re interpreting the data. I’m very confident that SpaceX is open to our input and conversely.”
On the Raptor side, another milestone was achieved recently, when “Raptor v3” achieved 350 bar chamber pressure, resulting in 269 tons of thrust, on the tripod test stand at SpaceX’s McGregor test stand.
Starship currently flies with Raptor v2 engines, with additional modifications — such as electric TVC — coming online from Booster 9 onward. However, Musk has already noted there’s another upgrade to come, often cited as Raptor 2.5, before noting the “v3” designation for this latest milestone test.
The main challenge for the HLS program relates to multiple agencies and vendors aligning with the Artemis schedule. Musk previously insisted that HLS Starship won’t be the pacing item. However, NASA officials cited the Apollo Program, where the lunar lander wasn’t ready, resulting in launches without that element.
“Because of the dependence on that [schedule], you know, we are looking at all options, and we’ve asked all of our contractors to bring their production in as much as they can because, of course, we really, really want to fly this mission the way we have designed it. But the other important thing, from an insurance standpoint, is to keep flying.”
“So, we’re asking everyone to aggregate as much hardware as they can for us. And then, depending on where we are with the rest of the production, just like they did during Apollo, where they downloaded, and they flew missions when the Lander wasn’t available, we will choose those missions based on the hardware that’s available.”
“That’s kind of our overarching strategy, and that, from a production standpoint, we think it’s very important to communicate to all of our vendors, including SpaceX.”
(Lead image: Booster 7 and Ship 24 flying on Starship’s maiden flight. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)
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(Lead Image: Starship doing somersaults. Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)