NASA Astronauts to the Moon – powered by SpaceX

NASA acknowledged that a commercial rocket might be an option to get Exploration Mission 1 off the ground. Could the first flight of the Orion Spacecraft be on a Falcon Heavy?

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I always just assumed that NASA would eventually roll out the SLS, slap an Orion spacecraft on it, pour in some astronauts and send them merrily on their way to the Moon sometime around 2028-2030. It now appears the situation might be quite different, at least for the first few missions, as the NASA astronauts might be powering their way to the Moon pushed by a few Raptor engines on a rocket or a Falcon Heavy from SpaceX. The ambitious timeline set by Elon Musk for a SpaceX Mars landing in the early part of the 2020s left a lot of people crying “that’ll never happen” and me thinking that I bet there’ll be a lot of challenges in getting NASA certifying SpaceX to carry astronauts on the Starship and Super Heavy (BFR at the time). Of course, what better way to get certified than to cooperate with the certifying authority by sending their astronauts to the Moon. Ok, so that’s a rather simplified view of what appears to be an acknowledgement by NASA that SpaceX will likely role out their Super Heavy well before the SLS gets bolted together so it’s in their interests to make overtures to cooperating.

The sleek minimalist interior of the Crew Dragon just before launch (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX looks to be the first commercial entity to be ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, well ahead of Boeing’s offering which is not too far behind but yet to have launched. SpaceX on the other hand has flown the dry run Crew Dragon to the ISS and back again without a hitch. All of that, in a slick modern looking spacecraft without the loads of buttons, wires and pipes that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in spacecraft. It looks good and it works! The next step is, of course, to put people in the Crew Dragon but first they will test the abort system before hoping to fly astronauts in the Crew Dragon, about July this year. The first Crew Dragon Demo 1 flight was the culmination of work by SpaceX that resulted from securing a contract under NASA’s Commercial Crew programme. SpaceX was awarded USD$2.6 billion under the contract, it’s useful to compare this to Boeing’s share at USD$4.2 billion for their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Maybe Boeing was seen as the safer bet back in 2014, so got the greater share of the money. For SpaceX, the lesser amount and the company’s own ambitious culture have been drivers that have clearly helped them so far.

Crew Dragon after its successful trip to the ISS (Credit: NASA)

So about a week ago when Jim Bridenstine tweeted his carefully scripted “We need to consider all options to meet the Exploration Mission-1 launch date of June 2020, including launching on commercial rockets” then SpaceX must have been rubbing their hands with glee. This must have been the equivalent of a space industry final warning for Boeing who then obviously did their best to get Jim back on side for him to tweet a few days later, “Good news: The @NASA and Boeing teams are working overtime to accelerate the launch schedule of @NASA_SLS. If achievable, this is the preferred option for our first exploration mission that will send the @NASA_Orion capsule around the Moon. Still looking at options.” I bet Boeing certainly is working overtime to avoid the commercial hiccup of having to hand over their lucrative contract to SpaceX. Nothing like a bit of corporate arm twisting playing out via carefully worded statements on twitter.

The Space Launch System, an artists impression (Credit: NASA)

If nothing else, the race to the Moon is nothing like the Soviet/US race of the 1960s, this time it’s the race between Boeing and SpaceX. I can’t help but think there will be a big compromise in there, that allows Boeing to continue to build their huge rocket that Jim describes as; “@NASA_SLS, the most powerful rocket ever built in human history, is a critical piece of the architecture that will enable us to deliver reusability to the Moon. It is a transformational, strategic capability for the USA.” With words like that it would seem that two Moon capable rockets will be on the menu by the mid 2020s. It might be that the Boeing behemoth becomes significantly cheaper and arrives a bit quicker than planned as the competition with SpaceX provides NASA with a couple of options and plenty of leverage.

Artist’s impression of the Orion Spacecraft and the European Service Module (Credit: ESA)

So fast forward to next year, it may not be a surprise to see an Orion spacecraft atop a Falcon Heavy, or some other SpaceX variation, for the Exploration Mission 1.