To this day, the most difficult thing about a space mission has always been carrying out a successful launch. In contrast, for Starship, developed by the company SpaceX, this is the easiest and most elementary step. This is what can be seen from calculations made by NASA so that the most powerful rocket in the world can take astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the second half of this decade.
According to Lakiesha Hawkins, from the American space agency’s lunar and Mars program office, carrying out a single lunar mission with Starship will require 18 or 19 launches in rapid succession – much more than originally estimated by Elon Musk at the time the project was presented. The information was given on Friday (17) during a meeting of the NASA advisory board.
This enormous challenge is the price of developing a fully reusable, high-capacity system for interplanetary flights. In order for the spacecraft itself (the second stage of the vehicle) to go to the Moon, land there carrying more than a hundred tons, take off again and return to Earth, it will need to be refueled in orbit. This is something that has never been done before in space with a rocket. And it will have to be repeated many times.
Starship uses liquid methane and oxygen as propellants, which are only kept that way at very low temperatures. Preserving them in space is complicated; Sunlight heats the vehicle’s tanks and causes part of the fuel to evaporate and slowly leak into the vacuum. Not to mention that most of it ends up being used to carry out the challenging climb to Earth orbit.
To overcome this, the plan for Artemis 3, NASA’s first manned lunar landing mission this century, involves launching a tank vehicle into orbit, followed by several tank versions of the Starship, which will dock with it and transfer the propellant. . The Starship destined for the lunar journey will then go up into space, which will dock with the tanker vehicle to be refueled before leaving Earth’s orbit.
A big question, since Starship was selected by NASA for the mission in 2021, has always been how many launches exactly would be required for this in-orbit refueling process. Musk then went so far as to declare that no more than eight, and perhaps, at best, only four. Critics of NASA’s option at the time spoke of 16, which SpaceX’s chief designer classified as “extremely unlikely”. But, apparently, it will be there.
Even though in-orbit refueling technology is satisfactorily developed, the high number of launches brings, in itself, a logistical challenge. Hawkins mentioned that it will be necessary to carry out the flights in a short period of time, alternating launches from the SpaceX base in Boca Chica, Texas, and the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida.
This shows how difficult it will be to execute the Artemis 3 mission within the timeframe expected by NASA. It is currently scheduled, unrealistically, for the end of 2025. But SpaceX will still have a lot to prove, in limited time, before American astronauts leave their footprints on the lunar soil again.
This column is published on Mondays in print, in Folha Corrida.
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