Op-Ed: Can Starship make its aggressive timeline?

SpaceX Starship to land NASA astronauts on the Moon
Lunar Starship lands on the moon. Image credit: SpaceX

MAY 4, 2020–Last week, NASA unveiled their Human Lander System contract winners – the National Team, Dynetics, and SpaceX. Alongside the HLS contracts came multiple reports on the suitability of the landers and their associated systems, known as the “Source Selection Statement”. Within the Statement, all three vehicles and their feasibility were rated on a scale of Acceptable to Very Good. Dynetics scored highest, and SpaceX scored lowest, ranking as merely “acceptable.”

The Statement took many factors into account, such as timelines, vehicle design, and general feasibility. SpaceX’s Lunar Starship is the most ambitious of the timelines, proposed for a demo in 2022, a whole year before the National Team’s Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV). With the recent progress at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas outpost, the timeline for the Lunar Starship vehicle itself may very well be achievable. SpaceX has been focusing heavily on the Starship program making an astounding amount of progress.

Unfortunately, that appears to be the only part of the Lunar Starship program that SpaceX has focused on. Left neglected are the launch vehicle – which currently doesn’t exist, and orbital refueling – yet to be demonstrated. Elon Musk claimed on Twitter that the Super Heavy, Starship’s launch vehicle, would begin construction in August of 2019, but it has been nine months since then, with no progress. Orbital refueling also may not be ready in time for the 2022 proposed flight.

So, is SpaceX ready for a 2022 flight? One of the reasons that the Statement marked SpaceX as merely acceptable is that they did not believe SpaceX could make a 2024 operational flight. To quote, “These development and
operational risks, in the aggregate, threaten the schedule viability of a successful 2024 demonstration mission.”

SpaceX will experience setbacks, and if even NASA doubts they will make it to 2024, can we say with any confidence that they will make it to a 2022 test? Probably not.

It will be a very challenging road ahead for Starship as the program will face setbacks yet unknown. The chances of them making the 2022 date is low, but still achievable. While it would be incredible for Starship to succeed in achieving that date, it should not be rushed to make sure the safety of the astronauts is not compromised. Best of luck to the SpaceX employees and NASA employees working to get Starship and the Artemis program closer to the Moon.

Article written by Chris D. and edited by Lavie Ohana.

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