Elon Musk’s SpaceX Holds Key to Moon As NASA Depends on Starship Launch

  • SpaceX plans to launch its flagship megarocket Starship for the primary time in April. 
  • The rocket, which NASA has tagged for upcoming missions, is essential to NASA’s return to the moon.
  • As NASA strikes away from constructing its personal rockets, industrial gamers will likely be central to missions.

NASA is inching ever nearer to returning to the moon after 50 years — and SpaceX is enjoying an important position within the mission.

Elon Musk mentioned SpaceX is targeting April for the primary launch of its enormous Starship megarocket system, the world’s strongest rocket designed to move cargo and crew to the moon, Mars, and past. It is comprised of a spacecraft and a booster, known as the “Tremendous Heavy,” that SpaceX has efficiently examined.

The extremely anticipated Starship launch will decide whether or not NASA’s Artemis moon program is on monitor for achievement. In 2021 NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to make use of Starship to assist the company land the primary people on the moon since 1972. Starship additionally landed a contract to be part of the Artemis IV mission final November. 

It will not solely be a trial of the corporate’s flagship automobile, but in addition a key check of NASA’s gamble to include industrial actors into the center of their growth course of, in accordance with Brendan Rosseau, a educating fellow of area financial system at Harvard Enterprise College.

“Woven into Artemis are the Starship plans and all these different completely different elements,” he informed Insider in an interview. 

NASA’s SLS depends on Starship for the moon touchdown

A Starship prototype being launched.

A Starship prototype being launched.


In contrast to the Apollo missions, NASA’s rockets is not going to take astronauts all the way in which all the way down to the moon.

The crew will launch to the moon’s orbit aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft, strapped to the highest of its new Area Launch System, or SLS, whereas a Starship, which can launch individually, will act because the mission’s lunar lander.

As soon as the mission is completed, Starship will deliver the crew again to Orion on their method again to Earth earlier than the crew abandons Starship in lunar orbit, Area.com reported.

Meaning NASA plans for a SpaceX-built rocket, which the company commissioned, to be the rocket placing boots on the moon for the primary time since 1972.

“For those who’re Invoice Nelson, NASA’s administrator, you are actually trying carefully on the check launches of Starship as a result of Starship is now a essential a part of your infrastructure,” Rosseau mentioned. 

NASA’s dependence on Starship was evident when Nelson requested Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, whether or not Musk’s Twitter acquisition would have an effect on the corporate’s mission with the company, NBC reported. Shotwell assured him that he had “nothing to fret about.”

NASA’s backing of SpaceX would not cease at Artemis III. The company has tagged SpaceX to design the lander for Artemis IV, extending NASA’s funding by one other $1.2 billion to design a system for the rocket to dock at NASA’s deliberate lunar Gateway.

“I feel it reveals NASA’s confidence in SpaceX’s capability to get Starship up and working by then. Clearly, it’s fairly exceptional, contemplating that we have not even had a full orbital flight check of the system,” Rosseau mentioned. 

SpaceX’s success was all the time NASA’s plan

An artist's rendering shows a Starship landing on the moon in the future. SpaceX has been contracted to send Starship to the moon.

An artist’s rendering reveals a Starship touchdown on the moon sooner or later. SpaceX has been contracted to ship Starship to the moon.


SpaceX’s success was a part of NASA’s grand design to deliver industrial actors into the center of its upcoming missions, Rosseau mentioned.

After the shuttle program resulted in 2011, NASA modified its strategy to its growth program. As an alternative of investing all its vitality into engineering a rocket from begin to launch, the company began pushing extra funding into non-public firms that would tackle the burden of growth whereas competing for decrease costs and better effectivity, Rosseau mentioned. 

He mentioned this technique was dangerous, however has now paid off “extraordinarily properly.” He added that “it birthed firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin and all these different firms. This NASA funding and having NASA as a buyer is the one motive why they exist at this time.”

SpaceX is not the one beneficiary of this technique. NASA has tasked 14 non-public firms with carrying quite a lot of payloads to the moon in coming years. Three of those firms are attributable to ship a payload this yr.

Musk guarantees Starship will likely be cheaper and higher than SLS

SpaceX's Starship next to NASA's SLS.

Paul Hennessy/Getty Photos

There is not any good estimate for Starship’s value, however Musk has beforehand mentioned that inside a couple of years, every launch may value lower than $10 million. 

SpaceX additionally goals to make Starship totally reusable, which implies it may doubtlessly launch a number of instances a yr.

“It essentially may change the economics of area dramatically and the way a lot we are able to put up in area and why,” Rosseau mentioned. 

If SpaceX had been capable of obtain simply 50 launches “in a single yr, they’d put extra mass into area than has ever been put up into area since Sputnik,” Rosseau mentioned. That is solely a 3rd of the yearly launches SpaceX has set as a aim. 

NASA’s SLS rocket, against this, has a excessive price ticket for the taxpayer: The mission has value $50 billion in growth for the reason that program’s inception in 2006. And the 23-story rocket solely launched six years after its preliminary projected launch date in 2016.

And with every SLS launch costing greater than $4 billion — with NASA having to construct it each time it launches — it is not going to get cheaper anytime quickly.

All of this makes NASA’s SLS a poor competitor to SpaceX’s shiny new rocket.

SLS was ‘a little bit of an anomaly’ for NASA

A bar chart comparing the heights of different rockets, using illustrations of the rockets in lieu of bars

Marianne Ayala/Insider

If NASA believes SpaceX can ship on its guarantees, then why did it maintain backing its personal SLS rocket? 

Rosseau mentioned the NASA’s megarocket was a “little bit of an anomaly” in its grand shift towards industrial partnerships. 

“For those who have a look at the value tag and the way lengthy it is taken to develop and the issues that it is had, perhaps it is proof that purchasing companies from the industrial sector actually is the way in which to go,” he mentioned. 

It might have been a political gambit, somewhat than a enterprise determination, that drove SLS’s continued funding, Rosseau mentioned. 

“Some cynics would say that it was congressional appropriators and senators with parochial pursuits who actually wished NASA to be constructing a large rocket only for the roles of their districts,” he mentioned. 

Nonetheless, SLS is more likely to stay NASA’s workhorse, not less than for the Artemis missions, Rosseau mentioned. 

“The benefit of SLS for Artemis is that, frankly, it was constructed for the Artemis mission. It was constructed to be appropriate with the Orion spacecraft. It was constructed to do that job,” he mentioned. 

“NASA’s labored actually exhausting on it. It looks as if they are going to follow this for some time now.”

Nonetheless, if SpaceX is ready to show that Starship is less expensive and extra environment friendly, there could also be “rising strain” for NASA to prioritize utilizing their rockets extra closely in missions past Artemis, Rosseau mentioned.

NASA would not wish to rely solely on Starship

Starship is the one automobile that’s more likely to let NASA land on the moon.

However Greg Autry, a visiting professor at Imperial School London’s Institute for Safety, Science, and Know-how, informed Insider: “We will need to have multiple solution to get on and off the moon.”

He known as Starship “amazingly promising,” however warned that there are a number of hurdles to recover from earlier than it makes its first orbital flight. These embody refueling the lander in orbit, getting life-support {hardware} on the spacecraft, and perfecting the dust-mitigation technique for touchdown on the moon.

“If any firm can do it, SpaceX can, however given the same old programmatic delays, which Starship has not been immune from, it’s a actual concern within the essential path to touchdown,” Autry mentioned.

NASA has to make sure it has one other lunar lander, in addition to Starship, for “mission assurance, system redundancy and ultimately to ensure financial competitors,” he mentioned.

“NASA is, as a coverage, fairly adversarial to having one winner,” Rosseau agreed.

The company moved final September to open a contract for buying a second lunar lander from opponents for future missions.

There’s area for a number of opponents out there, Rosseau mentioned, including that he’ll be protecting an in depth watch on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Relativity Area’s Terran R rocket within the close to future. 

“You need wholesome competitors on this sector so that folks must maintain innovating and do not get complacent,” he mentioned.