Starship Messenger: Only Elon Musk Can Save America’s Lunar Program

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Last Tuesday (1st), the Artemis program, with which the US intends to take astronauts back to the Moon this decade, was hit by a car. It was at a hearing of the House of Representatives Science Committee. The keyword of the presentation? “Unsustainable”.

The diagnosis came from NASA’s inspector general, Paul Martin, whose role is precisely to independently analyze the agency’s programs. In its report, concrete information appears for the first time on how much the first four lunar missions will cost (including the inagural one, Artemis I, scheduled for this year, which will be an unmanned test): US$ 4.1 billion per flight. Of that amount, the majority ($2.2 billion) goes to the SLS, the single-use super-rocket based on technologies from the old Space Shuttles.

Martin estimates that between fiscal years 2021 and 2025, NASA will have to shell out $53 billion to keep the program “on track.” And there goes the quotes because, regardless of payment, considerable delays are already expected. Remember when the goal was to land on the Moon in 2024? The inspector general now speaks of “2026 at best”. And contrast the five-year price tag with the annual budget earmarked for all of NASA: some $25 billion. With the two pieces of information side by side, we have the recipe for “unsustainable”.

There are several reasons that led to the white elephant: lobbying (the mighty Boeing is responsible for the SLS), congressional focus on keeping jobs after the space shuttle program ends, and hiring in a format that, according to Martin, favors the contractors over the NASA.

This is nothing new even for the agency, which has already been adopting a new hiring model for other programs. Instead of “total cost plus profit” as with the SLS, “fixed cost” as adopted for the International Space Station’s commercial cargo and crew programs. The old model encouraged companies to delay and inflate costs, with the guarantee that everything would be paid for. In the new one, if price and term are exceeded, the problem is with the supplier.

It is in these terms that SpaceX is developing a vehicle to serve as a lunar lander. This project, called Starship, although it has a modest (and fixed) cost for the size of the ambition, US$ 2.9 billion, ends up bringing in tow a launcher of the same size as the SLS, but modern, potentially reusable and at least 20 times more cheap.

Once it’s demonstrated for lunar landing missions, it’s unlikely it won’t be put to use as well to transport crew all the way to the Moon — dispensing with the need for SLS and Orion. But Starship involves untested technologies and, with it, risk. It might not work, it might take longer than expected. And with that it becomes increasingly likely that Chinese astronauts will be the first to land on the moon in the 21st century. Only Elon Musk at this point can save American ambitions.

This column is published on Mondays, in Folha Corrida.

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