Musk Rejects Blue Origin’s Claim Of 16 SpaceX Launches For Moon Lander
Space Exploration Technologies Corp.'s (SpaceX) chief executive officer Mr. Elon Musk has countered claims made by Blue Origin Federation that his company's Starship lander for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Artemis program will require sixteen refueling missions before it proceeds on its journey to the Moon. Mr. Musk's comments came in response to Blue Origin's statement made after the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a detailed rationale for its decision to reject Blue Origin and another competitor's protests for NASA's $2.9 billion award made to SpaceX for the mission.
The GAO's report relied on excerpts from all companies' proposals, including SpaceX's, which highlighted that a total of 14 refueling missions will be required for Starship's lunar journey.
Musk Highlights SpaceX Would Need Maximum Of Eight Refuelling Flights For Starship Moon Missions
SpaceX's Starship was the largest and the cheapest out of the three proposals that NASA received for its lunar lander, officially dubbed as the Human Landing System (HLS). Additionally, as opposed to Blue Origin's proposal, which required connecting its three components in the lunar orbit, Starship proposed refueling in Earth orbit before starting the journey to the Moon.
In its Source Selection Statement for the award, NASA outlined that SpaceX's "complicated" concept of operations would involve several propellant transfers in Earth orbit and represent an "unprecedented" scale of operations. However, since these operations would take place in Earth orbit, and before NASA launched The Boeing Company's Orion spacecraft, it determined that their risk of harming the mission's timeline was low.
At the time the Source Statement was released, the number of Starship tanker launches was publicly unknown. SpaceX's operations concept involves flying its lunar lander into Earth orbit and then refueling it with tanker Starships afterward for providing it with the fuel to make the lunar journey.
Revelations By GAO Outline SpaceX's Plan Of 14 Starship Tankers For Lunar Lander
While Blue's initial criticism of NASA's decision did not mention the precise number of refueling launches, the company released a new statement once the GAO made the information public. This statement outlined that the sixteen launches would not involve an adequate review process and therefore carry a greater risk of failure.
In response to the statements, Musk took to Twitter to outline that it is improbable for SpaceX to use sixteen refueling launches. The company's lunar lander plans, shared with NASA and highlighted by the GAO in its extensive report, involve fourteen refueling launches, the launch of a Starship lander and the launch of an unknown (redacted) object for a total of sixteen launches.
According to Musk:
16 flights is extremely unlikely. Starship payload to orbit is ~150 tons , so max of 8 to fill 1200 ton tanks of lunar Starship.
Without flaps & heat shield, Starship is much lighter. Lunar landing legs don’t add much (1/6 gravity). May only need 1/2 full, ie 4 tanker flights.
He elaborated by stating that sixteen launches will not be difficult for SpaceX due to the company's extensive experience of working with NASA for missions to the International Space Station. SpaceX's Crew and Cargo Dragon spacecraft, developed under NASA's Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Services program, ferry astronauts to the ISS. According to Musk, docking with the station is harder than it will be for Starship to dock with SpaceX's own vehicles.
Specifically, according to the executive:
However, even if it were 16 flights with docking, this is not a problem. SpaceX did more than 16 orbital flights in first half of 2021 & has docked with Station (much harder than docking with our own ship) over 20 times.
Going by Musk's logic, if SpaceX were to conduct 14 refueling flights, the company would have loaded the Starship lunar variant with excess fuel. Given the precise requirements of spacecraft design, this is an impossible proposition, so the company's plans for in-orbit refueling likely involve more details than are available for the public's eye.
The GAO revealed crucial details for SpaceX and Blue Origin's plans, despite important information being left out undoubtedly at the behest of the companies. The government body revealed several deficiencies in Blue Origin and Dynetics' (the third bidder) proposals, as it maintained that NASA's award process followed the rules set out by the space agency at the time of contract solicitation.
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