CEO Elon Musk says SpaceX is building a Raptor rocket engine every 48 hours, disputing claims of a ‘bottleneck’ for the Artemis moon mission boosters

SpaceX Falcon Rocket Florida
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifting off on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

  • CEO Elon Musk said SpaceX’s making Raptor rockets at a rate of about “one every 48 hours.”
  • The Raptor rockets will power the Starship, expected to be the next moon landing.
  • Musk on Friday again trolled Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Saturday said his company had the capability to produce a Raptor rocket engine every 48 hours.

“Raptor production is approaching one every 48 hours,” Musk said on Twitter.

The interplanetary transport engines, announced in 2016 and capable of generating 500,000 pounds of thrust, are key to SpaceX’s plans to help NASA return to the moon, then head further out to Mars.

The Raptor’s “insane power” is expected to power SpaceX’s Starship, which is set to be the next moon lander.

NASA in April chose SpaceX as its sole partner for the Artemis moon program. But the contracted work was put on hold in late April pending a Government Accountability Office review after a protest from another bidder, led by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company.

SpaceX’s Starship vehicle will be powered in its booster stage by 29 Raptor engines, Musk said in another tweet on Saturday. That will rise to “32 later this year, along with thrust increase per engine. Aiming for >7500 ton thrust long-term.”

Musk’s Twitter comment came after Tim Dodd, who runs the YouTube channel Everyday Astronaut, questioned whether the rocket production was in a “bit of a bottleneck.”

Some in the industry and government have expressed concern about SpaceX’s prototypes exploding during test flights. Those concerns were echoed last week by Blue Origin on Twitter.

“The Human Landing System program needs competition, not the delay of starting over. The National Team has an open architecture, deep experience, massive self-funded investments and a safe, low-risk design to return to the Moon. Let’s go,” the company said.

Musk on Friday replied to Blue Origin, which had a higher bid price for the Artemis contract than SpaceX.

“For the low, low price of … ?” Musk wrote on Twitter.

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SpaceX’s high-flying Starship prototype has finally landed successfully – a big step towards Elon Musk’s reusable mega-rocket

spacex starship sn15 landing success happy elon musk
The SN15 prototype stuck the landing (left), a big step towards becoming the reusable rocket Elon Musk (right) wants it to be.

On Wednesday, SpaceX sent the latest prototype of its mega-rocket system roaring six miles above Texas, its fifth such launch since December.

SpaceX is no stranger to Starship launches, but unlike the last four attempts, this prototype landed smoothly, without blowing up during its first 15 minutes back on Earth. A previous prototype exploded 10 minutes after landing, after a fire burning around its skirt wouldn’t go out. But this time, the fire at the prototype’s feet appeared to be extinguished.

“Starship landing nominal!” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, CEO, and chief engineer, declared on Twitter.

This version of the spaceship, called Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, followed the same trajectory as its predecessors. The 16-story rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. As it approached the peak of its flight, the vehicle shut off two of its three truck-sized Raptor engines. It hovered at roughly 33,000 feet before cutting the final engine, then tipped sideways and plunged back to Earth. As it neared the ground, the engines reignited to flip the rocket upright, and then it lowered itself to the landing pad.

As of Wednesday afternoon, SN15 was still sitting upright and intact on the landing pad.

A final version of this mega-spaceship is set to become NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that could put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

Musk has an ambitious vision for the launch system. The prototypes his company is launching are meant to be the upper stage of a two-part system. Eventually, a roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy would heave the spaceship toward orbit. Musk wants this system to carry humans into low-Earth orbit, to the moon, and even to Mars, then return to Earth to do it again. The smooth landing of SN15 gets Starship a big step closer to being the reusable vehicle Musk wants.

“It’s a tough vehicle because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk said in a NASA press conference on April 23. “Somebody’s got to do this. And if you have rapid and complete reusability, then that is the gateway to the heavens.”

SpaceX is building a booster that could carry Starship to orbit

The SN15 was the second of the five high-flying Starships SpaceX has launched that touched down in one piece – at least initially. The other was SN10, which landed in one piece in early March but blew up 10 minutes later. The first two Starship prototypes that soared to a high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, both slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. Another, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

SpaceX began assembling its first prototype of the Super Heavy booster – the other part of the Starship system – at its Texas facilities in mid-March. Musk said this version of Super Heavy is just for production testing, though the next prototype should fly.

To grasp the size of this launch system, look for the person standing on the lift in this photo Musk shared on Twitter. Starship, not pictured, would sit on top of that booster.

In addition to landing astronauts on the moon, Musk wants the Starship-Super Heavy system to power hypersonic travel on Earth. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that would carry people and cargo to Mars in order to establish a self-sustaining settlement.

Making Starship-Super Heavy reusable could slash the cost of reaching space by “a factor of 100 or more,” according to Musk. Its enormous size would allow it to carry large payloads to space, including tens of thousands of Starlink internet satellites that SpaceX plans to put into orbit.

In short, this is the launch system on which SpaceX is staking its future. But there are several hurdles to clear before it can reach space.

Environmental reviews could slow Starship’s journey to orbit

spacex starship super heavy spaceship booster rocket launch boca chica south texas illustration
An illustration of SpaceX’s planned 39-story Starship rocket system launching from Boca Chica, Texas.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked tickets for himself and eight others for a week-long Starship flight around the moon in 2023. The group is set to become the spaceship’s first passengers. After that, NASA hopes that Starship will return astronauts to the moon in 2024. But a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” NASA will meet that deadline.

In addition to successfully landing Starship prototypes, SpaceX will need to integrate the Super Heavy booster with the spaceship, learn to launch the two parts together, and show it can land the booster in one piece.

The company will also need to rocket a Starship into orbit to test its ability to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. That will require a new type of launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which involves many regulatory hurdles, including a thorough environmental assessment. Depending on the findings of that assessment, it’s possible SpaceX may need to conduct a new environmental impact statement, which could take up to three years.

Complicating matters is a leaked FAA draft document obtained by Insider that revealed SpaceX’s plans to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans could prolong SpaceX’s environmental review process.

Still, Musk maintains that Starship could fly its first people in “a couple years.” He has also said he is “highly confident” that SpaceX will launch an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed mission in 2026.

“I tend to be somewhat optimistic with respect to schedules. I feel I should acknowledge this,” he said in the NASA briefing. “So take that with a grain of salt. But I think it’s not out of the question that it could fly people in a couple years.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Watch SpaceX launch its newest Starship prototype. The last 4 exploded.

elon musk starship thumb 4x3
Elon Musk (center) wants Starships to fly to Mars. But so far the only prototype to land successfully (left) exploded 10 minutes later (right).

Update: The SN15 prototype flew and landed successfully on Wednesday. Read more in our story.

SpaceX is about to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype on Wednesday afternoon. The spaceship is ready to lift off from the company’s Texas rocket facilities.

Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this Starship mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

The plan for the SN15 flight calls for the rocket to shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall. As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright and gently lower to the landing pad.

That last step is where its four predecessors have failed.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

The first two prototypes that soared to high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

Watch Starship’s flight live

SpaceX is set to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are, starting at 5:20 p.m. CT.

A few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are also broadcasting live from Boca Chica.

The NASASpaceflight’s video stream offers knowledgeable broadcasters and multiple quality camera views.

The commentators on the feed keep track of preparations at the SpaceX facilities that indicate progress toward liftoff – things like clearing the launchpad, activity in the tank farm next to SN15, and the loading of liquid propellant into the rocket.

LabPadre, meanwhile, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. That YouTube channel is run by Louis Balderas, who lives across the bay from Boca Chica. Below is its main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the Boca Chica area to make way for launch on Wednesday. A Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures. Both closures end at 8 p.m. CT, so SpaceX must launch by then.

Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day to day depending on SpaceX’s plans and FAA procedure. If SN15 does not fly on Wednesday, further closures indicate that SpaceX could try again on Thursday or Friday.

A series of Starship explosions

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, Logsdon added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”

Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, recently predicted that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”

His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.

For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.

“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference last month, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published April 19.

Read the original article on Business Insider

SpaceX is preparing to launch its newest Starship prototype on Wednesday. The last 4 exploded.

elon musk starship thumb 4x3
Elon Musk (center) wants Starships to fly to Mars. But so far the only prototype to land successfully (left) exploded 10 minutes later (right).

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype. The spaceship could lift off from the company’s Texas rocket facilities on Wednesday afternoon.

Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

The plan for the SN15 flight calls for the rocket to shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall. As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright and gently lower to the landing pad.

That last step is where its four predecessors have failed. The first two prototypes that soared to high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, Logsdon added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”

Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.

starship moon human landing system
SpaceX’s Starship human lander would carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, recently predicted that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”

His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.

For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.

“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference last month, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

How to watch Starship’s flight live

During the test flight, SpaceX is likely to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are. During past Starship flights, the up-close cameras have provided stunning footage, like this clip of SN9.

SpaceX’s live feed of the SN15 launch will be embedded here once it becomes available. A few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company also broadcast live from Boca Chica.

We recommend starting with NASASpaceflight’s video stream, given the broadcasters’ knowledge and multiple quality camera views.

The commentators on the feed keep track of preparations at the SpaceX facilities that indicate progress toward liftoff – things like clearing the launchpad, activity in the tank farm next to SN15, and the loading of liquid propellant into the rocket.

LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, who lives across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the area to make way for launch on Wednesday. A Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures. Both closures end at 8 p.m. CT, so SpaceX must launch by then.

Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day to day depending on SpaceX’s plans and FAA procedure. If SN15 does not fly on Wednesday, further closures indicate that SpaceX could try again on Thursday or Friday.

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published April 19.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Former Senator Bill Nelson is officially NASA’s new administrator. His goals: support climate research and put astronauts on the moon.

bill nelson nasa administrator confirmation hearing senator
Former Senator Bill Nelson appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 21, 2021, in Washington DC.

NASA has a new leader, but he does not plan to shake things up.

Instead, Bill Nelson is keeping his eyes on the same prizes as his predecessor, Jim Bridenstine: sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.

Nelson, a three-term US Senator from Florida who flew into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, was sworn in as the new NASA Administrator on Monday.

His plan is mainly to keep the ball rolling. During confirmation hearings, Nelson told Congress that he wants to see NASA achieve its most ambitious goal – sending astronauts to the lunar surface and, eventually, to Mars. He also advocated a renewed focus on climate-change research, which has historically been a big part of NASA’s directive but was deprioritized under the Trump administration.

bill nelson nasa administrator swear in
Former Senator Bill Nelson is sworn in as NASA Administrator, as his wife, Grace Nelson, holds their family Bible, and his daughter, Nan Ellen Nelson watches, May 3, 2021.

“The space program needs constancy of purpose,” Nelson said in a written testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. For continuity, he added, he plans to work with Bridenstine and “seek his advice.”

That consistency may give NASA a break from the whiplash it often gets with new administrations. President George W. Bush first asked NASA to pursue a return to the moon in 2005. Five years later, President Barack Obama shifted the focus to Mars. The Trump administration shifted back to the moon, with a tight deadline: to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. That’s four years earlier than NASA was previously planning.

“If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is to continue for us to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” Nelson told the Senate committee, of which he was previously a member, during a confirmation hearing on April 21. “There is a lot of excitement.”

Sending astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

NASA still hopes to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 – a feat nobody has accomplished since 1972. Nelson is on board, even though the timeline may be too ambitious. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently determined a 2024 landing is “highly unlikely.”

“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that, with some sobering reality, that space is hard,” Nelson told the Senate committee.

NASA’s plan is to launch an astronaut crew inside an Orion spaceship, using the mega-rocket the agency is currently developing, called the Space Launch System. Once in lunar orbit, Orion would rendezvous with a lander. Two of the astronauts would move into that vehicle then land on the moon’s surface.

NASA recently awarded the contract for that lander to SpaceX. Elon Musk’s rocket company intends to convert its planned Starship mega-spaceship into a lunar lander. But NASA was expected to pick two contractors instead of one, so the decision prompted SpaceX’s competitors – Dynetics and Blue Origin – to file complaints. While things are being sorted out, NASA asked SpaceX to pause work on the project.

NASA cited a lack of funding from Congress when it decided to award one single contract, and promised there would be a follow-on competition. Nelson stood by that statement, vowing that there will be competitions for contracts to send the first astronauts to Mars.

“Competition is always better than sole sourcing, because you can get the efficiencies and you get a lower price,” he told the Senate committee.

NASA aims to launch its first Mars-bound astronaut mission in the 2030s.

‘You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it’

earth clouds planet space amazon rainforest
Clouds over the Amazon rainforest, as seen from space, January 30, 2015.

During his hearing, Nelson defended a White House request to budget $2.3 billion for NASA’s Earth-science programs. That would constitute a roughly 15% increase from the agency’s 2020 Earth-science budget.

“It’s a very important increase. You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” Nelson said. “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”

Nelson vocally opposed the Trump administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System – a $10-million-per-year program that gathers data on how carbon moves around the planet. Congress subsequently reinstated the program.

“When I flew on the space shuttle, any time that was not scheduled with experiments or flight activities – which was not often – I would make my way to the spacecraft window to look at our home, our planet,” Nelson wrote in his testimony. “I was struck by how fragile it looked with its thin atmosphere. Combating climate change cannot succeed without robust observations, data, and research.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

SpaceX is preparing to launch its newest Starship prototype within days. The last 4 exploded.

elon musk starship happy success thumb 4x3
Left: the SN10 Starship prototype soars above Boca Chica, Texas, on March 3. Right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype from its Texas rocket facilities. The spaceship could fly as soon as Wednesday.

Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

When SN15 launches, it should shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall. As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright and gently lower to the landing pad.

That last step is where its four predecessors have failed. The first two prototypes that soared to high altitude, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speed and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, Logsdon added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”

Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return people to the moon. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.

starship moon human landing system
SpaceX’s Starship human lander would carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, predicted last week that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”

His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.

For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.

“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference on Friday, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

Government clearances indicate that SN15 could launch on Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the area that day. A Cameron County judge has also issued a local road closure from noon to 8 p.m. CT, indicating that SpaceX may launch in that window.

Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day-to-day depending on SpaceX’s plans and the FAA’s launch-licensing procedure.

How to watch Starship’s flight live

During the test flight, SpaceX is likely to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are. During past Starship flights, the up-close cameras have provided stunning footage, like this clip of SN9.

SpaceX’s live feed of the SN15 launch will be embedded here once it becomes available. In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.

LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, who lives across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

NASASpaceflight also offers broadcasts with multiple high-quality camera views and input from a group of knowledgeable commentators. Their livestream will be embedded here once it’s available.

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published April 19.

Read the original article on Business Insider

NASA’s former Mars leader says the agency is ‘keeping their eye’ on a crewed mission to the Red Planet

Mars from UAE Hope Probe.JPG
A photo of Mars taken by the United Arab Emirates Space Agency.

  • NASA said its return to the moon would be a step toward a crewed Mars mission.
  • “It’s something I hoped I would see,” said Scott Hubbard, a former Mars program leader.
  • NASA last week flew a helicopter and produced oxygen on Mars, good signals for future missions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When NASA announced its partnership with SpaceX to return to the moon by 2024, Scott Hubbard, who formerly led the agency’s Mars program, was hoping there would be some news about future crewed trips to the Red Planet.

He wasn’t disappointed. The press release from NASA mentioned Mars a few times, positioning the trip to the moon as an important step toward an eventual Mars mission.

“It’s something I hoped I would see,” Hubbard, who is also a SpaceX advisor, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “So that it’s clear … that they’re keeping their eye on the Mars goal and working toward it in this interim fashion.”

NASA’s announcement about the moon mission came amid a flood of news about Mars, where the agency landed its Perseverance rover earlier this year.

On Monday, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter made history with the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The same helicopter later converted carbon dioxide into oxygen for the first time. Both events were seen as small steps toward a crewed trip to the Red Planet.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has often said he wanted to get people to Mars as soon as possible. He expected to have 1 million people on Mars by 2050, he said last year.

This year, he said he was confident the first crewed mission would happen in 2026 but some experts expressed skepticism. At a press briefing on Friday, Musk said the first trip could be in “a couple years.”

Moving quickly in space exploration brings with it a great risk. Musk seemed to acknowledge this, saying at another event this week that “a bunch of people will probably die” as crews venture toward the Red Planet. This would be similar to any prior danger associated with exploration, he added.

NASA is taking incremental steps, said Hubbard. First, the agency’s going to learn to live and work on the moon. Setting up a permanent base on the moon will be a learning experience, which will help when crews eventually land on Mars.

It takes about three days to get to the moon but about seven months to get to the Red Planet. Hubbard said he was enthusiastic about Mars, but also wanted astronauts to be able to return to Earth.

“There’s been talk about one-way trips,” Hubbard said with a laugh. “I’m not a fan of that, but some people are.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

A SpaceX advisor and other industry figures explain why the company’s NASA partnership signals a new space age as they prepare for the Artemis mission

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

  • NASA and SpaceX plan to return to the moon as soon as 2024.
  • The agency will give up some control but also save money, said Scott Hubbard, a SpaceX advisor.
  • “There is no backup plan in place should SpaceX fail,” said another former NASA engineer.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the early days of space exploration, NASA’s deals with private vendors were well known – maybe even notorious – for the level of detailed instruction they included.

“That relationship was one where the master control belonged to the NASA people, the civil servants, the engineers, and the smattering of scientists, who would, in some cases, dictate to the contractor down to the thread size of a screw,” said Scott Hubbard, chair of the SpaceX Safety Advisory Panel and Stanford University professor, who spent 20 years at NASA.

He added: “So it really was not much of a partnership.”

But times have changed. As NASA prepares to return to the moon with SpaceX, industry insiders say the balance of both the cost and risk has shifted toward the private space-flight company.

The Artemis mission to return to the moon is the biggest signal yet that public space exploration has entered a new age, one where private companies are pushing boundaries and spending billions.

In the simplest terms, the Artemis contract is more hands-off than the contracts NASA used to sign. It essentially gives SpaceX a finish line, and it’s mostly up to the Elon Musk-helmed company to figure out the best way to get there, Hubbard said.

The announcement of the $2.89 billion contract drew attention from around the world, in part because NASA chose a single partner. SpaceX was chosen over defense contractor Dynetics and a team that included Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. NASA had said it would choose two of three possible contractors but in the end chose only one.

“When you’re running a big program like that – and I have been in that situation in my 20 years with NASA – if you can afford it, you really always want to select two vendors, two companies, because it provides some built-in competition,” Hubbard said in a phone interview from California.

SpaceX has “strong track record” of delivering on NASA contracts, said Marco Rubin, a NASA engineer in the 1980s, who is now senior investment director at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology.

But, he added: “Awarding this partnership to one company makes me a bit nervous. There is no backup plan in place should SpaceX fail.”

NASA said the decision was mostly based on cost. After President Donald Trump pushed for the agency to return to the moon, NASA requested about $35 billion in support. The agency said in an additional congressional funding request that “strong commercial partnerships” would play a big role in the moon mission.

“To achieve our goals, we will not go forward alone,” the agency wrote.

base camp
Artist’s concept of the Artemis Base Camp.

The amount spent on Apollo missions in the 1960s would be at least $150 billion in today’s dollars, Hubbard said. The Apollo program stretched into the early 1970s, and its total cost would likely be closer to the equivalent of $300 billion today.

That sum makes the $2.9 billion contract awarded to SpaceX seem tiny but SpaceX is expected to put a significant amount of money toward the mission. The company didn’t respond to an interview request for this article.

But it’s difficult to compare the cost of the Apollo and Artemis programs, for a few reasons, say some industry observers and insiders.

First, there are all the technological breakthroughs that have happened since the Apollo missions, Hubbard said. Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have internalized the lessons learned from early NASA designs, so they may not have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

Second, it’s difficult to compare contracts under the new partnership with the old contracts, when NASA owned everything that was made, said Scott Shackelford, who teaches business law and ethics at Indiana University.

“What’s different this time around is it extent to which NASA is leasing space, rather than purchasing these vehicles and platforms outright,” Shackelford told Insider via email.

He added: “This move has the potential to make the cost of the Artemis Program much more sustainable than Apollo, though NASA’s decision to preference SpaceX does mean that all of our eggs are indeed in a single basket.”

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SpaceX is preparing to test-fly a new Starship after the last four exploded. It could return NASA astronauts to the moon.

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Left: The SN10 Starship prototypes soars above Boca Chica, Texas on March 3, 2021. Right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship from its Texas rocket facilities this week.

Unlike its predecessors, this particular mega-spaceship is a relative of NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that will put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

Starship serial No. 11, or SN15, is the latest of a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to six miles above Boca Chica, Texas.

As SN15 approaches the peak of its flight, it should shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one. Then SN15 should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall.

As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright again and gently lower to the landing pad. This is where its predecessors have failed, though.

The first two prototypes that soared to high altitude, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speed and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in mid-air as it re-lit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider after the fourth Starship explosion. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, he added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk taker is willing to get aboard.”

Nailing the landing is even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced on Friday that it’s working with SpaceX to turn Starship into the lunar lander that will jumpstart its Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship there in 2024, but a new report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet this deadline.

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Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

On SpaceX’s end, a major step toward the moon will be flying and landing Starships here on Earth – without blowing them up.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has ambitions beyond the lunar surface, though. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that carry people and cargo to Mars and establish a settlement there.

Musk said Thursday on Twitter that the company was aiming to launch SN15 sometime this week. Government clearances indicate that Tuesday and Wednesday might offer flight opportunities.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued airspace-closure notices for the area from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures – another requirement for launch – from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday.

How to watch Starship’s flight live

As of Monday afternoon, SN15 was upright on the Boca Chica launchpad. During the test flight, SpaceX will likely livestream from that site and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are located.

The up-close cameras have provided stunning footage of past Starship flights, like the below footage of SN9. (We’ll embed SpaceX’s live feed below once it’s available.)

In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.

NASASpaceflight broadcasters will likely cover a critical “static fire” engine test that SpaceX must conduct ahead of launch, anchoring SN15 to the launchpad and igniting its engines. It’s unclear when that will happen, but the earliest opportunity is Tuesday.

LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, a Texas resident who lives just across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a hotel resort in South Padre Island about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

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SpaceX’s NASA contract has sparked reaction from industry figures seeking details. Blue Origin says it is ‘looking to learn more about the selection.’

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

  • SpaceX on Friday was awarded an exclusive $2.9 billion contract to help NASA return to the moon.
  • NASA and SpaceX negotiated a contract, excluding Blue Origin based on its high first bid.
  • “We are looking to learn more about the selection,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Many figures in the space and science communities are seeking more details about how NASA chose only SpaceX for its return to the moon, when the agency’s stated plans called for two commercial partners.

SpaceX had been competing against Blue Origin and Dynetics for a pair of contracts for NASA’s Artemis program. But NASA on Friday announced SpaceX would get an exclusive $2.9 billion contract.

Blue Origin had partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to form “The National Team.”

A Blue Origin spokesperson told Insider via email on Saturday: “The National Team doesn’t have very much information yet. We are looking to learn more about the selection.”

Elsewhere, celebrations were in order.

“NASA Rules!!” Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, said. “We are honored to be part of the @NASAArtemis team.”

NASA last year chose the three companies to develop a new “human landing system,” or HLS in NASA’s shorthand. The agency has plans to return to the moon as soon as 2024 and eventually set up a permanent base there.

Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, dubbed its moon lander Blue Moon. Dynetics, a defense contractor, named its design the Dynetics Human Landing System.

The winning HLS, SpaceX’s Starship, uses the company’s Raptor engines, along with designs from its Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles, NASA said. It’ll be fully reusable, with a landing system designed “for travel to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations.”

“By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s HLS program manager, in a statement.

NASA had been expected to choose two of the companies. But budget concerns led to its choice of SpaceX, which restructured its proposal to meet NASA’s spending expectations, according to the agency.

NASA on April 2 chose SpaceX as a “conditional selection,” which allowed the agency to enter post-selection negotiations with it, according to a document prepared by Kathryn Lueders, Source Selection Authority.

Lueders wrote that each of the three companies’ “Option A” proposals were above the agency’s proposed budget for the HLS program.

Lueders added: “It was therefore my determination that NASA should, as a first step, open price negotiations with the Option A offeror that is both very highly rated from a technical and management perspective and that also had, by a wide margin, the lowest initially-proposed price – SpaceX.”

Musk’s company then resubmitted its proposal on April 7, according to NASA.

“Although SpaceX’s revised proposal contained updated milestone payment phasing that fits within NASA’s current budget, SpaceX did not propose an overall price reduction,” Lueders wrote.

After the announcement, SpaceX employees and space enthusiasts flooded Linkedin and Twitter with positive messages. Many posted rocket emojis, as might be expected.

But other space enthusiasts and budget hawks questioned NASA’s decision to drop down to one commercial partner for such a monumental mission.

Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy advisor at The Planetary Society, said via Twitter that he was “honestly shocked” that NASA would choose a single commercial partner. Multiple partners would boost competition, he said.

“Of course, SpaceX always acts as if it’s a constant competition with itself. And it’s 100% delivered on its capability and price promise so far,” Dreier said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, of Alabama, released a statement saying NASA’s decision “raised a lot of questions.”

SpaceX had previously entered into agreements with NASA and the US Air Force, with “very high” price tags, he said.

He added: “The years of delay in the development of the Falcon Heavy, as well as recent tests of the Starship program as reported in the news, also raise technical and scheduling questions.”

Several of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes have exploded during test flights.

Dynetics didn’t return a request for comment on Saturday.

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