You know we’re planning to go back to the moon, right? We left some electric cars there, after all, and we should probably check on them. You also may recall that NASA selected SpaceX’s proposal for a lunar lander based on their in-development Starship spacecraft, and you may recall that Jeff Bezos didn’t take that so well, and issued a protest about the decision via Blue Origin, Bezos’ spacecraft company, whose lander was not selected. The third company considered, Dynetics, also protested, so the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into it, and issued a report. There’s interesting things in that report.
I’ve been looking through the report, and it reveals NASA’s unflinching support of the SpaceX decision. One big reason is that SpaceX’s proposal was the cheapest, at just under three billion dollars, while Blue Origin was right about double that at nearly six billion, and Dynetics half again as much at nine billion.
You might notice in that chart there that Dynetics’ offering was the only one to be listed as “marginal” when it came to the “technical” category. That’s what leads us to what may be the sickest burn in NASA/GAO history.
So, despite what I personally think is the most practical general design for a lander—low to the surface, easy entry/egress, a good sort of start for a modular base design, that kind of thing—it looks like the Dynetics entry’s mass is greater than the thrust of its engines, which, as you can probably guess, is a problem.
As the GAO report puts it (emphasis mine):
“First, Dynetics protests the agency’s assignment of a significant weakness for the proposal’s failure to reasonably substantiate the claimed mass reduction opportunities necessary to close the deficit between the mass estimate for Dynetics’s proposed integrated descent/ascent element (DAE) and the current flight dynamic mass allocation. In order to enable a rocket to lift off from a launch pad, the action or thrust of the rocket must be greater than the mass of the rocket it is lifting. See “Rocket Principles,” NASA, available at https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/rocket/TRCRocket/ rocket_principles.html (last visited July 25, 2021).”
Do you see what NASA did there? They gave Dynetics the link for NASA’s K-12 educational portal! The page is literally titled “The Beginners Guide to Rockets!”
Daaaaaaammmmmnnn, NASA. That’s cold-blooded.
Plus, this was a publicly-released document, and of course people noticed it. A public roasting, even.
But what I find the most interesting about the document has to do with details of what SpaceX is proposing for the plans for their Starship Human Landing System (HLS).
There’s a lot of interesting things about the choice of Starship as a lander, mostly having to do with the fact that Starship is really a lot more than just a lander—it’s a general purpose spacecraft, and as such it has capabilities that go far beyond just what NASA was looking for in a lander.
The most obvious part of that is that it’s absolutely huge. This can be a significant benefit as it means very generous crew quarters, two airlocks, large fuel/oxidizer capacity, and the ability to land a huge amount of mass to the moon, and carry a lot of mass from the moon as well.
All that, and complete planned reusability, too. It’s really an impressive spacecraft.
All of these specifications were far beyond what the other competitors were proposing, so I get why NASA would want those sort of capabilities. I do think there’s one significant drawback to the large Starship design, though, and that has to do with the huge distance from the lander’s door to the surface:
I think there’s definite potentials for trouble there, but I generally agree with NASA in that the overall craft is extremely capable and I’m confident they’ll have some way to mitigate the giant-last-step issue.
The part of the Starship choice that really surprised me was this (again, emphasis mine):
As addressed above, SpaceX’s concept of operations contemplated sixteen total launches, consisting of: 1 launch of its [DELETED]; 14 launches of its Tanker Starships to supply fuel [DELETED]; and 1 launch of its HLS Lander Starship, which would be [DELETED] and then travel to the Moon. See, e.g., AR, Tab 213, SSA Briefing Slides – Part I, at 35813. The protesters contend that the Option A BAA requires a FRR for each launch, or a total of 16 FRRs, one for each launch contemplated by SpaceX’s concept of operations. The protesters contend that NASA waived this material requirement when it only required SpaceX to propose 3 FRRs, or an FRR for each type of Starship.
See that? To get Starship from low Earth orbit (LEO) to the moon, SpaceX is planning 14 launches of Starship Tanker variants which will refuel the Starship HLS lander before it can make its trip to the moon.
Counting the Starship lander launch and one redacted launch (I think it’s an orbital fuel depot) that’s 16 total launches. And, these launches would have to happen in a fairly short time, I’d think, as the Starship lander orbits Earth.
The “FRRs” in that quote refer to “Flight Readiness Reviews,” which the two protesting companies are arguing are an issue with SpaceX, who only had to propose three, for some reason. I’m not sure how big a deal that is, but what is a big deal will be the logistics of launching, then docking and refueling a ship 14 times in a row.
I’m not saying it can’t be done—space agencies have been re-fueling spacecraft in orbit since the Soviets launched Salyut 6 in 1977, which was re-fueled by uncrewed Progress spacecraft. It’s technically do-able, certainly, but it will represent the first time anything of this scale has been tried.
But, the whole point of this is to do bigger and better things, right? And Starship is supposed to be re-usable and easy to launch and land, so if that’s all true, then they should be able to launch fourteen of these one after another, right?
It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out, and if it works, a good byproduct of this demanding launch schedule should mean that everyone would have to get very good at launching rockets in short order.
Based on the information in the GAO report, here’s my best guess at what a Starship HLS mission plan might look like:
The Starship lander is launched without a crew; the crew launches and heads to the moon separately in an Orion spacecraft, so I didn’t show the launch of that here. This diagram shows it waiting in Lunar orbit for the Starship HLS.
Technically, there’s actually a number of places that the refueling could take place: low Earth orbit (shown), a higher geosynchronous orbit, the Lagrange point between the Earth and Moon, lunar orbit, and so on.
Each likely has benefits and disadvantages people smarter than me understand, but I think a low Earth orbit refueling setup is the plan so far.
Blue Origin was actually using the large number of required launches to talk a bit of shit about SpaceX, as you can see in an infographic they published:
They refer to the high number of launches as “immensely complex and high risk,” and they’re not exactly wrong, but there’s something to be said for developing the capacity to pull off all those complex and risky launches, which could prove the basis for more ambitious missions in the future.
They also note the incredibly high door issue, but it’s not like the Blue Origin lander’s 32 feet is just a little hop to the ground for them, either.
There’s a lot of interesting things in this document, and overall I think the SpaceX choice will prove to be a good one; it’s not necessarily the ideal design for a lander, but I think that’s mitigated by the fact that it’s a real, general-use, solar-system-ready spacecraft, and that’s a fantastic step to take.