As many space exploration enthusiasts may know. Elon Musk’s main focus with SpaceX is to make humanity a space fairing civilization. He plans on doing this by creating a self-sustaining colony on Mars.
Mars is his main priority over let’s say creating space stations in earth’s orbit or a large Moon colony.
However, he did mention a few times that going to the Moon is definitely on the agenda. Also because of another billionaire entrepreneur paying SpaceX a substantial sum to have him and some of the world’s renowned artists fly around the Moon with Starship. They named this project ‘Dear Moon’.
This flight is suspected to take place around the year 2024.
Probably the Starship crew version will have numerous test flights by then to establish its safety record. The ‘Dear Moon’ launch would coincide with the launch of Nasa’s Artemis III mission to the Moon. Artemis III is a planned 2024 flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft to be launched on the Space Launch System. It would be the second crewed mission of the Artemis program and the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Now let’s talk a bit about Nasa’s Artemis program.
This program is a collaboration of many government space agencies and commercial companies to land a woman on the surface of the Moon and the next man by 2024. It’s estimated costs are around 34 billion $ in the span of 2020 to 2024. But here we can assume that with the current crisis the completion date of this ambitious mission would probably around 2026 – 2027 and cost more in the order of 50 – 60 billion $.
It is currently planned that Nasa will probably use SpaceX’s capabilities in the form of a cargo capsule called Dragon XL. This capsule would be capable of transporting 5000 Kg cargo, part pressurized, and unpressurized to a lunar orbit where it would dock with the lunar gateway and stay there for up to one year.
Overall the Artemis program has received widespread criticism from many experts in the field. And rightly so. With the current commercial space transportation capabilities of SpaceX, a return mission to the surface of the Moon could be completed for far less financial resources than using the strategy and resources outlined in the current Artemis program architecture. This is not even taking into consideration the possible and likely emergence of the Starship crew and cargo spacecraft which might be zipping past the Moon to Mars by the time the Artemis program starts its first mission.
One cannot fail to notice a certain disconnect between the Artemis program and the developments that are unfolding at SpaceX and especially Boca Chica, where Starship is being actively developed.
However, it is very likely that the Artemis architecture and mission parameters might change substantially over time with the passing of new heads of states, new conflict of interests, and of course the developments that SpaceX is making with Starship.
For example, if SpaceX manages to safely fly Starship crew and cargo multiple times before 2023. It simply would not make sense to send Nasa astronauts to the surface of the moon around the year 2024 – 2026 on an expensive SLS rocket while SpaceX astronauts are living it out cybertrucking on the Moon’s surface and having a blast while doing so.
In my understanding, the following proposal for a redesign of the Artemis program would be more cost-effective and faster to execute:
– All space transport would be provided by SpaceX for the entire duration of the Artemis program. All crewed transport would be provided by Dragon 2 as long as Starship crew is not operational.
All cargo transport would be provided by Falcon 9 & Falcon heavy as long as Starship cargo is not operational.
– The Lunar gateway would be replaced by a permanent Lunar surface station.
This Lunar surface station would consist of habitation modules, mining modules, a research center, and a garage with rovers.
– To get the relatively large modules to the surface of the moon they could be first transported with Falcon heavy to low earth’s orbit. Falcon Heavy is capable of transporting 20 metric tons to LEO in the fully reusable configuration.
Later, another booster module could be added that would give the needed delta-V to bring the modules to lunar orbit.
After which the modules descend to land on the Moon’s surface.
This process could then be completed for all the needed modules and rovers.
– After the hardware has been delivered to the Lunar surface, Dragon 2 could be launched to a Lunar orbit with Falcon Heavy where an automated refueling depot would prep Dragon 2 for landing on the Moon’s surface.
– All the lunar modules could be designed and built by other space companies such a Boeing as SpaceX would probably be to busy doing Starship related activities.
Now some might be asking, what happened to Starship.
Of course, the above-outlined revised Artemis architecture would become obsolete with a fully functioning Starship crew, cargo and tanker.
In fact, the plan outlined above using Falcon 9 & heavy would take a lot longer to execute than a possible architecture using Starship only.
This is because to achieve the same mass to the Lunar surface would require a lot fewer launches with Starship and also a lot less money than the Falcon vehicles.
Even if Starship cargo gets operational first and the crewed version a few years later, this would still significantly change the game. As the Starship cargo could be used to carry all the needed habitats, fuel, and other needed resources to the surface of the moon after which Dragon 2 could still be used to carry the passengers. In fact, Starship cargo could deliver 100 metric tons to the surface of the Moon using orbital refueling with the tanker version. 100 Metric tons is a lot of weight. Later when Starship cargo is optimized, Elon Musk estimates it can carry even 150 metric tons. That is more than the weight of two M1 Abrams combat tanks. And we are not talking here about a Lunar orbit but literally on the Lunar surface.
During these times it is rather difficult to predict how the Artemis program might change and if in the future it will make use of Starship, be it crewed or cargo version. However, it is most likely that we can see a return to the moon within the next 8 to 10 years. If it will not be Nasa, it could be China or a billionaire throwing money at SpaceX to be the first private citizen printing his boot in Moondust and be eternalized in the history books of space travel forever, or however long human civilization will last.