NASA says its assure SpaceX on track for Starship landing on the moon : Business


NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was leaving the Kennedy Center Honors this month when he ran into Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space venture.

The company is now NASA’s No. 2 contractor, pulling in more money from the space agency than Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It flies NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station and is developing the spacecraft that is to land people on the moon. But Nelson was growing concerned that Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, was getting embroiled in his purchase of Twitter and losing focus.

“Tell me that I don’t have to worry about the distraction at Twitter,” he said to Shotwell as they walked into the garage at the awards ceremony together.

“I assure you — you don’t have anything to worry about,” Nelson, in an interview with The Washington Post, recalled Shotwell replying.

That exchange eased Nelson’s concern about Musk and his stewardship of SpaceX — at least for now. But with the completion of its Artemis I mission this month, a flight of NASA’s Orion capsule around the moon without astronauts on board, the space agency will increasingly be looking to SpaceX to help it achieve its goal of returning humans to the surface of the moon.

Last year, NASA made a big bet on Musk’s company, awarding it a nearly $3 billion contract to use its next-generation Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the lunar surface by 2025. Since then, SpaceX won another contract, worth $1.5 billion, for a second lunar landing.

The company has been running an intense testing program at its private launch and manufacturing facility in South Texas, moving quickly to get what would be the biggest and most powerful rocket ever flown up and running. The company is already building a launch tower for it at the Kennedy Space Center, where it launches its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft.

While Musk has been at Twitter, SpaceX has kept up its fast pace, completing three launches in 34 hours last week, including one that was the 15th flight of its reusable Falcon 9 booster, a record.

All of which has turned Nelson, once a SpaceX skeptic, into a believer.

“Remember what everybody said? SpaceX was pie in the sky,” Nelson, a former senator from Florida, said in the interview. “As we say in the south, the proof’s in the pudding.”

Gesturing to a model rocket on display in his office, he added: “And look what they’ve done with that one right there, the Falcon 9.”

Still, Musk’s foray into social media and the way it has consumed his time has worried Nelson, other leaders at NASA and the space community as a whole.

When pressed about what Musk’s takeover of Twitter might mean for NASA, Nelson said: “I have a great deal of faith in Gwynne Shotwell. And I also have faith that Elon trusts Gwynne and has turned the reins of SpaceX over to Gwynne.”

When it comes to SpaceX’s day-to-day operations, that has been true for some time. But SpaceX is still very much Musk’s company; he’s not only the chief executive, but also the chief engineer. He sets the vision and the ethos for its more than 10,000 employees. And Starship, a fully reusable spacecraft that he wants to use to get people to the moon and Mars, has been the project that has consumed most of his time and energy at SpaceX.

Concerned about its progress, Musk last year wrote an email to SpaceX employees lamenting how long it was taking to ramp up production of the next-generation raptor engine that powers Starship. “The Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago,” he wrote. He said the company faced a “genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.”

The email was largely seen as a way for Musk to motivate his team to work faster. But Starship still hasn’t flown this year, let alone at such a fast cadence. The company is now looking to fly sometime in the first part of next year.

But it’s still not clear when. This year, the company won preliminary approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the vehicle to orbit, but that approval came with a list of more than 75 actions the company must complete that are designed to protect the environment and reduce the impact of SpaceX’s activities on a nearby public beach and wildlife preserve.

The FAA said last week in a statement to The Post that the time frame to complete those milestones varies. “Some measures must be completed prior to launch, while others are designed to occur during post-launch activities or following a major mishap,” the statement said. “The FAA will ensure SpaceX complies with all required mitigations.”

It did not say when SpaceX might launch. SpaceX declined to comment for this article.

Earlier in the development program, SpaceX sent Starship prototypes several miles into the air, where they hovered and then descended toward their landing pad. Several crashed and blew up. But after a few attempts, the teams figured it out and landed the spacecraft safely. Since then, the company has been focused on building the launch tower, complete with a pair of arms that would catch the booster as it descends, and getting the whole vehicle ready for an orbital launch attempt. In recent months, it has conducted engine tests, including one last week.

Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said at a recent event that the company is making progress. But she didn’t offer a timeline for when the orbital launch attempt might come.

“They’ve got the design ready to go. Do some serious hardware testing and they’re beyond the we’re-going-to-probably-blow-up-the-pad phase,” she said.

As a former acting deputy associate administrator at the FAA, she said she knows “how hard it is to develop a new location to launch rockets from. … It’s very challenging to set up a new location, and I think they’re just experiencing some of those things.”

In the interview, Nelson said he is constantly asking for updates on the company’s progress. “And I am continuously told they are on schedule, they are meeting every milestone, and in some cases, they are exceeding their milestones,” he said. “And, you know, look at SpaceX’s history. They launch and sometimes they blow up. But in the end, they keep it going.”

NASA will need them to. After it successfully flew the Artemis I mission, it’s looking toward Artemis II, which would send a crew of astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to orbit around the moon, perhaps by 2024. Then for the lunar landing attempt, Starship would meet up with Orion in lunar orbit, ferry the astronauts to the surface and back to Orion again, which would take them home.

That’s scheduled for 2025 — an ambitious, perhaps quixotic timeline, considering Starship has yet to fly to Earth orbit, let alone to the moon. The mission is also complicated by the fact that SpaceX would have to refuel Starship in Earth orbit with several tankers before it could fly to the moon.

Nelson conceded that there is a good chance the mission could slip to 2026, especially since the space agency has to get its new spacesuits ready and pull off a successful Artemis II mission as well.

“There’s a lot riding on it,” he said. “SpaceX has to be ready.”

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