The Race to the Moon Between SLS and Starship

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS ) may have been delayed yet again…this time until summer. It seems that it has an engine problem that NASA won’t talk about. If true, this could have existential consequences for NASA’s deep-space rocket program. When SLS does its first orbital test launch, Artemis I, SLS will fly an empty crew capsule past the Moon, around it, and back…a great achievement, but they can’t afford any further delays.

I have no doubt that every delay at this point endangers the program’s funding as the development of a more advanced, far less expensive, launch system by SpaceX nears completion. SpaceX has various Lunar plans of their own with their commercially developed Starship spacecraft that they will try to send to the Moon ahead of SLS with their own version of NASA’s swing around the Moon. NASA has also selected a special Lunar Lander version of Starship to return humans to the surface of the Moon…after launching those humans to space aboard the Orion capsule with SLS.

If SLS makes it around the Moon first, it might have a chance at future missions beyond the Moon, but NASA has now noticed Starship and begun planning some new deep-space missions around its architecture. The original intent by NASA has always been to fly all of its future deep-space missions on SLS. However, delays in getting SLS flying have shrunk its mission list, either because some missions simply weren’t worth the launch cost to fly on the very expensive SLS, or because they would be ready for flight before SLS could be available to fly them. It has even lost missions to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which I wrote here doesn’t even match the SLS in capabilities. Most recently, NASA assigned the Falcon Heavy to fly Europa Clipper…a mission to study a moon of the planet Jupiter. That mission was originally intended by Congress to help give SLS a reason to exist.

Congress, in its budget-cutting frenzy, might lose patience with NASA’s flightless SLS bird very soon if it continues to run out of usefulness.

Elon Musk insists that the SpaceX Starship WILL fly to space for the first time In January…but I haven’t heard that the FAA has approved the flight yet and I’m not completely sure that they’re being honest about all the reasons for their delay in granting SpaceX’s request to fly their huge booster from Boca Chica Texas. As a result of Government agency foot-dragging over the environmental impact of orbital launches from Texas, SpaceX has now started work on a Plan B…building a Starship launch platform at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The first launch of Starship with its orbital booster, and likely the first several launches as well, will only be suborbital and not reusable. SpaceX intends to soft-land Starship and its booster on the ocean at least once as they get the landings figured out. Also, everyone expects some hiccups along the way…flight test failures that either crash the rockets or cause them to produce pretty lights in the sky. This creates a bit of a problem for SpaceX in that they are behind schedule building all the Raptor engines that they think they’ll throw away in those first test flights.

According to a letter that Elon sent out recently to his Hawthorne employees, the company must fly Starship many times in 2022. Some of that letter might have been hyperbole, but they plan to fund Starship development with their new Starlink V2 Internet Satellites. However, it turns out that they may have spent too much money too aggressively on their first batch of the ground receivers for those new satellites and now they have to get them going and profitable quickly or they risk bankruptcy. Elon says that they must use Starship’s first operational launches to fly the V2s to orbit because they’re too big and heavy for the Falcon 9…except I wonder why Falcon Heavy can’t do it with its neat new biggy size payload fairing. Wouldn’t you love to see Falcon Heavy fly twice a month next year? I’d vote for that.

So, it sounds like it’s maybe a case of fly or die…a duel to the death…for both SLS and Starship. The SLS first flight, whenever it flies, will go straight to the Moon and back as I said before…and faces looming odds of cancellation of their funding if they suffer any more mission-bleed to Falcon Heavy or Starship. It MUST stay ahead of the rocket that, unlike Falcon Heavy poses a very real threat to its existence. Starship SpaceX Starship totally looks like it’ll reach space first, but will have to work up to Lunar return flights…and they want to outcompete SLS, but they also have a very high priority Low Earth Orbit launch schedule that may have to come first to guarantee their own survival…if they can even get over their current engine production and government permit challenges in time to fly their planned schedule at all.

We will wait and see.

~ by Bill Housley on December 4, 2021.

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