No Minister

A Thousand Moons

Beautiful isn’t it?

As the photographer explains here:

This image of the Moon is the result of combining approximately 1000 exposures taken with my telescope during different phases to show the full depth of its mountains and craters. One of my most detailed images yet!

There’s also this compilation of forty eight different colours of the moon photographed in a time span of ten years.

I thought of these images the other day when news broke that NASA has made a very big decision regarding its planned lunar exploration:

[NASA decided] a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.

That’s a hell of a vote of confidence in SpaceX given that they’re still developing Starship, but by now they’ve got a track record I don’t think anyone should be denying. The Starship HLS (Human Landing System) will be a variation on the standard Starship model.

The thing that strikes me about this decision is that it could be the death knell of the huge Space Launch System, which NASA has been developing for over a decade now and which has still not had even one test flight compared to what Space X has done in less time.


NASA finally has at least hauled the first SLS stage from its test site in Mississippi to Florida where they’ll start assembling the whole thing for a uncrewed flight to the Moon later this year as part of the Artemis Programme.

The first crewed mission might happen in 2023.

Also, just like the good old Apollo programme fifty years ago, everything but the Orion spacecraft on top will be thrown away. Each SLS flight will cost about $2 billion. NASA and its contractors can only build one per year.

By contrast Starship and its Heavy Lifter (the BFR) are designed to be fully reusable. The two Starship flights will cost about $1.4 billion each, but following the SpaceX business model of Falcon 9, more flights would rapidly lower that cost and they’re already building one test-model Starship a month.

Both vehicles will lift about the same amount of mass to LEO (Low Earth Orbit).

This is all even sadder when you consider that the SLS is basically the same rocket as the Ares that started development under the Constellation Programme of the Bush Administration, as is the Orion spacecraft. That programme was begun in 2005 to replace the Space Shuttles, following the loss of a second Shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, and was supposed to have got to the Moon by 2020. Constellation was cancelled in 2011 when it became obvious that it wasn’t working.

Bush’s NASA administrator, an actual rocket scientist, never helped matters when he cringingly described the whole system as “Apollo on steroids”. Ugh! Not exactly the bold leap into the 21st century one would expect of NASA.

More like Apollo on Xanax.

So NASA has basically failed twice in a row. No wonder they’ve gone for SpaceX.

For these reasons the SLS has been nicknamed the Senate Launch System. Getting that NASA money spread around the states by such politicians was how LBJ set the whole thing up to protect the Apollo project, and like similar schemes that LBJ created it has survived to produce things like this that aren’t fit for purpose. But Senator Shelby (R-Ala) has announced his retirement, he was one of the biggest backers of the SLS and his seniority made him the head of the Senate Committee dealing with NASA, so he had a lot of sway. His retirement is another blow to the SLS.

Artists rendition of Starship HLS

Supposedly there will be an SLS lunar landing in 2024. Clearly NASA has now bet that Starship will be ready by then to do the same thing, even if that huge spacecraft is overkill for the task. And if it does then you could see the SLS finally cancelled. The Orion spacecraft may linger on but to what end?

Naturally, because this is America, a couple of the losing contenders have filed legal challenges to NASA’s decision. Undoubtedly they’ve plugged tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars into their design for lunar landers, but NASA clearly thought they couldn’t make it. However the contract will be on hold until the GAO (Government Accountability Office) makes a ruling on those claims.

The underlying message here may be that the days of NASA feeding private contractors cost-plus contracts is over. If they want to land on the Moon they’ll negotiate a contract with SpaceX, exactly as they do for the ISS cargo and crew services.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 3, 2021 at 6:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. I follow space quite closely. Space X hasn’t built or launched Starship yet. They haven’t successfully tested the upper stage. Yes, they are getting into it, but it will be at least a year before they launch it to orbit, and that probably won’t involve recovering both stages. That looks to be quite some time away.

    As for Starship being human rated, that is several years away. The recovery system looks extremely risky, to the point all four first attempts blew up. So for the next few years, Starship will be cargo only.

    Whereas I reckon you can be fairly certain that the SLS will be successfully launched on its first attempt.

    Elon’s cost “estimates” are miles out. He only includes the fuel cost. Starship will be doing well if it can be reused 10 times (which admittedly is 10 times more than SLS). So lets say it is 10 times cheaper per launch. However, to go anywhere beyond low earth orbit, it needs refuelling about 5 to 8 times. So the true earth to moon cost is going to be around 50% of the cost of SLS, not counting the time and risk the refuelling will take.

    I agree that SLS has a limited life. Probably less than ten will ever be built. However NASA is already building the first four, with the first in final assembly at the Cape, which is likely to be launched on a full moon trip later this year, testing every aspect of the system including the Orion crew capsule, and service module. SLS will get people around the moon before Starship.

    You may have been following ULA. They look to have a highly capable Vulcan Centaur, which is partially reusable. It will get more payload to the moon than Space X super heavy, and almost as much as Starship, due the efficiency of the upper stage. It is hugely more simple than Starship which requires multiple refuelling in LEO before it can go to the moon. The Centaur stage, with its hydrogen oxygen engines, is an extremely efficient moon transfer stage.

    I see NASA is suspending the Moon Starship contract. Not surprising. I was surprised that NASA didn’t pick Dynetics as well as Moon Starship. The original plan was to down select two of the three contenders. I reckon that is what they will go back to. Dynetics looks a lot less risky, given that it does not have the multiple refuelling requirement in LEO of Starship.


    May 3, 2021 at 7:42 am

  2. Just to add to the point about the Dynetics moon lander. A fully fuelled Dynetics landing system can be launched to the moon on a Vulcan Centaur. To be used multiple times, the Dynetics systems needs refuelling at the proposed moon orbiting station. The reason for the moon orbiting station is because the landers (whether Starship or alternatives) have to be used multiple times, and to be refuelled each time.


    May 3, 2021 at 8:33 am

  3. What ‘substance was involved in the purple moon Tom, great post.


    May 3, 2021 at 10:22 am

  4. I agree with some of what you say Wayne.

    The Starship concept has often had me thinking that Musk has chewed off more than he can swallow. To try and develop such a huge spacecraft and launching system so quickly is daring to say the least. Even Musk admits that it’s “mad”

    But as I said, it’s following the same path as his previous efforts, and they’ve worked, delivering reusable rockets and spacecraft with reduced costs that have shocked everyone in the launch industry.

    WRT the other competitors perhaps the key point here is that, while Starship is in testing stages, their proposals had not even got that far. Basically NASA had little but paperwork to go on.

    Having said that, I too was surprised that NASA did not select two options and I also think they’ll be forced to pick a backup option.

    Finally I should say that I’m probably being a little unfair to NASA and the SLS for the simple reason that they’ve had to work in a political-bureaucratic world for the last twenty years. That means fighting against budget cuts, never having the money you need for rapid development in the first place, and knowing that if you do take risks and something literally blows up, the whole thing gets put on hold while you deal with Congressional hearings for a year or two. Given those constraints and the lack of any Apollo project-like deadline or political push, it’s probably not surprising that it has taken fifteen years to get to this point.

    Still, for fifteen years I expected something a bit more advanced and sustainable than “Apollo on Steroids”

    Tom Hunter

    May 3, 2021 at 10:29 am

  5. Speaking generally, No Minister is one of the most interesting Kiwi blogs I read. I don’t iike to miss a post. I don’t comment much, but thankyou.


    May 3, 2021 at 1:23 pm

  6. Tom,

    I basically agree with you on the SLS. NASA should have been able to do better than SLS.

    For instance, at least copy the ULA idea of recovering the first stage RS 25 engines. Which after all are actually designed to be reusable. ULA intend to recover the first stage BE4 engines. The engines are a separate pod to the fuel tank, and separate from the tank when the fuel is used up. They then parachute down, with the parachute being recovered in flight by a helicopter. Presumably by a specially fitted out Chinook, given the weight.

    Apparently the engines are 65% of the cost of the first stage.

    It is the same technique that Rocket Lab is going to use to recover their first stage. They only need a small helicopter to do so.


    May 3, 2021 at 2:53 pm

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