NASA Picks Spacex’s Starship To Land Humans on the Moon

But what this reveals about NASA is more interesting.

Credit: Spacex

Last week, NASA unveiled to the world its top three choices for crewed lunar landers under its Artemis program to land the first woman on the Moon. Spacex’s Starship spacecraft, which I have written about extensively, was one of NASA’s picks. Spacex therefore, will receive $135 million to begin developing a lunar lander variant of the groundbreaking spacecraft. The choice of Spacex was a surprise to many, but what was not chosen is far more revealing.

Besides Spacex, the other winners were the National Team, led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and another proposal by a company called Dynetics. Each of these companies will receive seed money from NASA to explore their designs. Presumably, NASA will down-select to two companies in the next round of funding in 2021.

Now that we know what was chosen, we can move on to what was not chosen. There is one aspect of all three proposals that is missing: The SLS rocket. The SLS rocket, which has been aptly nicknamed the Senate Launch System, has been beset by incredible delays and cost overruns since work on its predecessor began in 2005. This rocket is, by most accounts, little more than a jobs program that funnels taxpayer money into the pockets of special interest groups that keep powerful Senators in their seats in Washington (hence the SLS nickname).

None of the proposals selected by NASA require the rocket that Congress is funding for that very purpose. These proposals can make use of the SLS, and probably will for launching of humans to the dock with the landers. But, especially with Spacex’s proposal, the SLS is needed at all. In fact, the need to launch crews to the landers using the SLS feels ham-fisted and overly-complex.

This is very telling, as it appears that NASA, unable to jettison the SLS due to Congress, is doing everything that it can to starve the SLS of potential flights. The SLS was not selected for use in cargo transport to the planned Lunar Gateway and may not be used to launch any of the Gateway segments. In effect, the SLS will become an over-sized, overly expensive human transport; one that because it is not mission critical, could find itself completely cancelled one day.

Why it matters: In these uncertain times, investment in space exploration creates jobs and is driving innovation in an entirely new industry that benefits us here on Earth. NASA is learning that public/private partnerships are more effective at driving this innovation. Congress needs to learn this too.