Ep. 702: Moonshot 2024 – Go or No Go?

With Artemis 1 completing its robotic flight around the Moon, we know that the SLS works. Next comes Artemis 2, with a crew of astronauts flying past the Moon. If that’s successful, we could see humans set foot on the Moon in December 2025. But there is a long list of challenges to consider that could delay things considerably. Go or no go for launch?

This episode was made possible by the following Patreon members:

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Gerhard Schwarzer
Nicholas Cunningham


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:49] Astronomy episode 702. Moonshot 2024. Go or no go. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, a weekly fact based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Professor Kane, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, how are you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:02:12] I am doing well tomorrow. I. I hit the half century mark. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:19] Oh. Happy birthday. It’s. So. Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:23] So. Yeah. Yeah, I’ve been doing a whole lot of. So I’m definitely past the middle. Life expectancy for my bloodline. I, I don’t know what to think about this. Right. But, if any of you would like to help me celebrate, I’m going to be painting on stream tomorrow night over on Star Strider on Twitch and discussing, what it means to think that 1970 was 30 years ago. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:58] That’s. That’s what you think. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:00] So doesn’t your brain ever go, oh, the 80s was just 20 years ago. Like like my brain does that in order. Completes an incorrect ways. And now we’re old. It turns out we are old enough to be grandparents. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:15] Yeah, yeah, I do. I do remember things that my parents were talking about as their memories. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:22] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:22] Feeling so far ago and just incomprehensible. And then I, you know, we’ve lived through Berlin, walls falling and all that kind of stuff. And in, in our lifetime. Yeah, yeah. So this is the last episode that I’m going to be recording from this hollow sounding, room in Arizona. We leave Thursday to return home. I’m probably gonna take about a week to get home. Take it slow. So my guess is next time I record, it’s going to be from some hotel somewhere in in northern Washington, I think is probably if I do the math. Right. So anyway, it’s been super fun. I got lots of sun, and I’m looking forward to getting home to the snow that I see on our home cameras. With Artemis one completing its robotic flight around the moon, we know that the SLS works. Next comes out of its two with a crew of astronauts flying past the moon. And if that’s successful, we could see humans set foot on the moon in December 2025. But there is a long list of challenges to consider that could delay things considerably. Going to go for launch. All right, Pamela, sort of before we like started this episode, before we even started recording, I was like, how are we going to do this? And like, why do you say 2024? 

Pamela Gay [00:04:35] It was the plan. So so the plan was. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:39] The one was the plan was. 

Pamela Gay [00:04:40] An edict that came down from the US president, who was at the time trying to replicate the Kennedy by the end of this decade, we show, and so the edict was by 2024, which would have been in this bloke’s second term that he assumed he was going to have, NASA shall land astronauts on the moon and and. In 2021. Bill Nelson in November said, yeah, no, that’s not going to happen. That was actually never feasible. And then it was made even less feasible because, well, there was a lawsuit and a pandemic involved in the most American way of things falling apart. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:33] Right. Okay. So, yeah, Artemis one is now in the rearview mirror, which was where we got a full stack test of the Space Launch System, the Orion capsule on top. It launched. It spent about a month in orbit in the lunar vicinity before returning home. We got a nice Tesla as works as planned. The Orion capsule was able to do all of its maneuvers and was able to fulfill all of its purpose. So the plan was Artemis two is to do humans now. So. So what is the sort of the structure and what’s plan for the Artemis two mission? 

Pamela Gay [00:06:14] So Artemis two should be doing the the one surround. Well, it’s going to go around more than once. It should be going to the moon, circling the moon, looking down at the surface of the moon. And due to how Artemis is set up, there won’t be the same concerns they had with the Apollo mission that had a similar plan. So. So if you remember back, there was an Apollo mission where they went around and they looked down and they were like, we’re so close. But NASA had quite purposefully not included enough fuel on board that the astronauts could land and return to orbit so the astronauts could not disobey and go to the surface without permission. 

Fraser Cain [00:06:57] That was Apollo ten, right? 

Pamela Gay [00:06:58] Yeah. And yeah, it turns out that these are concerns you have to have when you’re dealing with test pilots. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:07] Yeah. Yeah. I’m sure if they had any of what they would have going for it. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:10] Exactly, exactly. Well, with with the Artemis mission there, there’s no such possibility because a capsule has no capacity to land and take back off, and they’re going to be in a capsule. So there’s no going to the surface in 2024 and. Yeah. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:34] But the goal here is to is to demonstrate that the Orion capsule and its service module can keep a crew of astronauts. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:43] Alive, alive. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:45] In space for the duration of this this mission. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:49] And, yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:50] You know, these are unknowns. I mean, we know that the Orion capsule can keep a simulated human alive for a month. But now we’ll find out how it’s going to deal with actual people. People for astronauts, including a Canadian. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:03] I, I just want to point out the the bar here is keep them alive. And and you just blithely said we don’t know if it can keep them alive. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:15] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:16] Yeah. These these are the real concerns. I mean. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:19] We assume we can keep them alive. It’d be weird to plan to send them and not be sure if it could keep them alive. But, you know, it’s it’s. You got to check and be sure. Trust but verify. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:31] It’s it’s true. It’s true. Yeah. And. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:36] So let’s get to the like the, the fun part which is now we’ll talk about the Artemis three mission which follows after Artemis two. But first it’s time for another break. 

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Fraser Cain [00:10:30] And we’re back. Okay, what’s the plan for Artemis three? Or what was so far to miss three? 

Pamela Gay [00:10:37] Let’s see that. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:38] First. What was the plan for Artemis three? 

Pamela Gay [00:10:41] So Artemis three is theoretically supposed to carry a group of astronauts, including a woman and a person of color, who could be combined to be the same human. They haven’t been selected yet, I don’t think. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:02] No. 

Pamela Gay [00:11:04] And and it was supposed to be a four person lunar orbit with a two person lunar landing, using the Starship Human Launch system to deliver them to the South Pole. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:23] Right. So sorry, I just like, like, even before that, like today. Who? We can talk about the lawsuit, right? So why don’t we sort of talk about the what the plan was that there was going to be all lander and then. Okay. And that way we can sort of open up into the, into the controversy in the lawsuit and the and where we end up with. Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:11:40] So so the baseline plan was NASA, under presidential edict was going to deliver a woman and a person of color to the south pole of the moon and go high. We have returned. But that was the baseline plan and get all of the international glory for being the first nation to return after more than 50 years of not being there. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:11] And that’s all great. You’ve got this enormous, crazy rocket, the Space Launch System, you know, almost as powerful as the as the Saturn five. You’ve got this next generation crew capsule, the Orion, designed again, we hope to keep humans alive in space for long periods of time. The thing that’s missing is that lander. So what was the plan for the lander? 

Pamela Gay [00:12:37] So it was a completed contract where, companies were given the chance to bid on a request for proposals, and they were asked to basically specify what was the expected cost, what was the expected timeline, what was the technology, yada, yada, yada. And two of the companies involved in the bidding process were Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, his company, and Space-x, Elon Musk’s company. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:11] And the Blue Origin one was more complicated than that. Like there was a bunch of other yeah, subcontractors sort of had to collect themselves together into this team. And then on the other side, you had SpaceX. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:25] And based on cost and other factors, let’s face it, no one can do it cheaper than SpaceX. Ax. NASA picked SpaceX ax and Jeff Bezos said unfair. Unfair. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:43] But I think it’s really important to understand. White space was going to be suggesting what they were providing because they were going to take the top part of Starship and build a human rated landing version of this, designed to land on the moon, and then it would be refueled in space and it would go to the moon, and then it would land and you would have, like this skyscraper, mostly empty, I guess, filled with and like a crane to help the astronauts be able to reach the surface because there’s no door. Yeah. And they could just, you know, ladder they can walk out of like it’s they’d have to. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:20] A winch system. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:21] A winch system. Yeah. That would carry them down hundreds of feet to get to the surface of the moon. It felt like just colossal overkill. And yet it was the. It was the cheaper bid. I mean, they were the only ones able to provide the bid at the price. And the because the system kind of looked like a more normal what you would imagine a landing system to kind of look like it. Small squad had a bunch of fuel tanks, but you can imagine astronauts inside and then stepping out onto the surface of the moon. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:51] And one of the other problems was the Blue Origin. One didn’t actually meet all the requirements of the request for proposals. And so they submitted a proposal, but it didn’t quite meet all the requirements, whereas the SpaceX one did. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:06] Right. Yeah. So it came in at the right price, fulfilled all the requirements. The proposal we’re going to get into in a second. Some of you already kind of know the problem here. We’ll get into that in a bit. But and as you said, so after that, origin Blue Origin suit. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:24] Yes. And that caused everything to stop. SpaceX couldn’t move forward on development of their human landing system, Starship HLS, which is that specific ferry that they were designing to go back and forth from cislunar space to the surface of the moon. And, and so lawsuits that stopped production delay entire missions. And and so, yeah, in combination with a pandemic that was already slowing things down, a lawsuit made it absolutely impossible for at 2024 edict to be met. 

Fraser Cain [00:16:06] And although Blue Origin wasn’t successful in canceling the contract with SpaceX, that’s still went forward. They were able to convince NASA to put them back in the running for an upcoming lander mission. And so there is, said Artemis six, I think. So they’ve won the contract for Artemis six. And and that’s great. And, you know, when we kind of go back to commercial crew space, when you look about the ways that the astronauts make it to the International Space Station, NASA said, okay, this is turned into a ferry service. Let’s pick two providers to give us redundancy. We’re going to go with SpaceX X with the Crew Dragon, and then we’re going to go with Boeing. With the Starliner, one has delivered astronauts to orbit successfully many times. The other has is still having some issues that need to be ironed out. And they’ll get there. Yeah, but it’s nice to have the redundancy. Like I think like I think that was a stroke of genius by was it I mean, was it Bill Nelson or whoever was at the NASA team at the time who sort of put that plan into place that, you know, we think about the space shuttle and all of the issues that happened with the with NASA attempting to maintain a vehicle that didn’t entirely meet the requirements, had an additional requirements thrown on top of it, and we know killed two crew of astronauts to to not have any of that responsibility and just show up and pay that the the flight ticket and the astronauts get on board. It’s worked out really well. And when. Yeah. And when Boeing comes on line with Starliner, you’ll have that redundancy. And it’s going to work out really well. And you could take that model. You can replicate it to the moon. And now you’ve got. The star should be jealous. And then you’ve got the whatever’s the Blue Origin and and partners HLS. And you’ve got various ways to get to the moon, none of which depend on NASA. They contract that kind of stuff. So I think the plan is a really good one. And that’s sort of where we were at. And so how did the date change? 

Pamela Gay [00:18:21] So currently they’re looking at no earlier than 2025. Now starships, it has had its own issues and and well, Starship and Starship HLS are slightly different systems. They are, to a degree, both being tested along the same lines. You can’t exactly get the Starship HLS to space until the, booster beneath it functions right. We have so far seen two launches. The first was, I think everyone agrees, a bit premature. But it hit special dates and special numbers if you’re into that kind of thing. The second test was much more successful, but still, didn’t make it very far from the launch pad. So they are hoping to have a third launch before the year is out. So they have three more weeks. Let’s hope that Starship can can start seeing the kind of rapid fire, iterative design that allowed the Falcon series to become the workhorse it is today. If they can pull that off. We should be able to see the HLS get back on schedule. Right now it’s. We need we need a working booster, and we don’t have a working booster yet. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:44] So what is the the date that NASA is setting right now, like, as of December 2023, when is NASA saying they’re going to send Artemis three? Yes. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:59] Currently that that no earlier than 2025 that was originally stated by Nelson has drifted to December 2025. So, two years from now instead of a few months. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:16] So two years from now, we will have the Artemis two mission in the, rear view mirror, and we will have the Artemis three mission blasting off for the moon. All right. Here is the part that I have just been salivating so that we can talk about. Let’s talk about this. Now, have you are you completely up to speed with what’s going to be required for Starship to be the landing system for Artemis three? 

Pamela Gay [00:20:45] They kind of need the Lunar Gateway. 

Fraser Cain [00:20:49] No. So the newer like they they put it closer on the critical path. And lunar the original lunar gateway like that comes later. 

Pamela Gay [00:20:57] Okay. So they need a way to refuel that sucker, right? 

Fraser Cain [00:21:00] So the plan is that the Starship will launch with human landing system on top, and then it’ll go into orbit. Actually, the first thing they’re going to do is are going to launch a fuel depot into orbit in an orbit around the Earth, and then they will fuel up the fuel depot, which is going to take no less than 15 launches of of of Starship to each one’s going to launch. It’s going to have Starship on board. It’s going to meet with the fuel depot. It’s going to transfer its propellant. It’s going to return safely and land captured by Maxilla Zealand. And they’re going to fill it back up again. It’s going to launch again and dock with the with the fuel depot and transfer cryogenic propellant, which, by the way, nobody’s ever done in space. And then it’s going to return until finally the fuel depot is full. Then the HLS will launch. It’s going to meet up with the fuel depot. It’s going to transfer all the propellant. Then it’s going to fly out to the moon. It’s going to go into orbit around the moon. Then they’re going to make a test landing and launch again to demonstrate. And this is sort of part of the $4.3 billion contract that they want. So we’re going to get this test to say, okay, they’re in orbit around the moon. You can land safely on the surface of the moon and then you can take off again. Once that’s been completed, then. Artemis three can take off. The crew can meet with the HLS and they can land safely on the moon. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:26] In two years. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:27] Two years? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s never been launch before using cryogenic propellant storage and transfer in a way that’s never been done before. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:40] Say how many launches is required again to fill the fuel? 

Fraser Cain [00:22:44] Least 15, but probably closer to 20. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:48] So. That means they need to be doing this at a frequency significantly greater than one a month once they get going. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:58] I guess so, yeah. We need to start today. Yeah. So yeah. That’s funny. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:04] So, we this is not going to happen. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:11] Well. Hold on. It could happen. If Starship does well on, its okay. So one of the things is that the rumor mill says that. Yeah, if SpaceX is going to try to do, they’re going to skip a bunch of steps for their next test of Starship and what they’re gonna do this time around. Is it going to maybe carry propellant tanks inside Starship? And they’re going to test cryogenic propellant storage and transfer inside Starship. And that will. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:41] They’re not going to Hawaii. They’re going to orbit. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:44] If this is a possibility. Yeah. So instead of going Hawaii, they’ll go to orbit and they will while they’re in orbit, they’ll test cryogenic storage and transfer. And so that works. And they’ll they’ll know whether they’re sort of basic assumptions for what they’re building for the fuel depot are correct. And then if, if that works, I mean, theoretically, Starship can launch. On a daily basis. Right. This is what we’ve been told. And so, yeah, I mean, if, if Space-x wants to cram down their schedule. But I think the issues they’re going to want to make sure that they can properly demonstrate. Landing on the moon, getting back up into orbit. And then the other thing is, is that this thing’s going to put out so much sort of exhaust. When it does do, its moonlighting that it’s going to kick up a cloud of debris around the moon. That is a threat to the next launch to itself and the next launch. And so when they do this launch, they then have to get away from the moon, and they have to let that dust settle down. So that closes the window on the inside of it as well. So you’ve got the develop the rocket test the rocket test the the space piece propellant fill the fill the tanker go to. It’s really complicated. And it is it’s a whole separate thing. Which has which was never done in the original Apollo missions or anything. So just as a counterpoint, the plan by the Chinese, because the Chinese are planning to to land humans on the moon by 2030 and their plan is to build two identical rockets, one of their largest version of which they haven’t ever tested yet. One will have their brand new, untested in development crew capsule. The other one will have their lunar lander. The two spacecraft will fly to the moon, and then they’ll deliver the the Crew Capsule service module and the lunar lander. The astronauts will get over into the lunar lander, go down the surface, come back up. They get back into the crew capsule and come back. So two launches as opposed to 15 to 20 launches. Yeah, yeah. Which strikes me as, as a lot simpler. But like, in the perfect World, you’ve got this fully reusable two stage rocket. And so, like, I got to leave space in your imagination and in your excited child, right? For a fully reusable two stage rocket and all the wonders that could be done with that. So, yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:17] I mean, I mean, I’m just I think the fastest turnaround we’ve had so far on a booster has been, what, three weeks? 

Fraser Cain [00:26:26] Oh, I don’t know. Yeah. Like like a Falcon nine. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:29] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:30] Yeah I don’t know. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:30] And and I mean, it would be lovely if we got to the point that we could launch a new booster every. We could launch the same booster every day. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:42] Once a week was the plan? 

Pamela Gay [00:26:44] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:45] And we’re not there yet, but I think it’s it’s feasible that they could get boosters to once a week. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:51] They’re going to need to have several boosters and a much bigger building. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:56] Right. And then you get one failure with the maxilla, like the launch platform catching a rocket badly. And then this over and over, the whole launch pad is down. You’ve got to rebuild the launch pad from scratch. They can’t have a single failure of any of that. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:12] And they haven’t. They haven’t caught any yet. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:15] No, no. So we add that to the list. Catching rockets with maxilla safely. So. So the world, like the wondrous dreamer in me, is excited by the idea. And the grim project management realist in me just goes, there’s no way this is going to come together. But nobody has given us the official has given us an official slip on the timeline. But but this is the like this is what’s driving the development of Starship now. Like, I think for the longest time, I feel like we want to make a next generation, two stage reusable rocket. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:57] We’re going to Mars. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:58] Yeah, we’re we’re going to build the city of Mars. All this kind of stuff. Right? And then you’re like, well, you know, once you use it for your moon landing mission. Okay, great. Okay, now, this is like this is the priority. It is now taking center stage in the in the the critical path that gets humans onto the moon. And and so now with SLS kind of wrapping up in with all of the other changes to Ryan that they may need to make. I mean, I think that’s all now deeply understood by NASA. I don’t think you’re gonna see delays coming from NASA or any other part of that. It’s going to be will this complicated lunar landing system work as intended or not? And that’s where we stand. And so right now what, December 2025, I think we feel that feels very realistic. And, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving you an actual date, and I won’t. 

Pamela Gay [00:28:55] I, I’m. 

Fraser Cain [00:28:56] Just going to I’ll just keep reporting. The whatever is the official date and then report when changes. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:03] I they still haven’t finished assembling and setting up in Cape Canaveral yet. And all of this is supposed to be happening from Florida, not Boca Chica. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:13] Oh, okay. Well, add that to the list. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:16] Yeah. So let’s. Let’s take a step to the left and do the time warp to 2028. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:26] I refuse to prognosticate. I will do it on this one. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:30] That’s probably wise. I, I I’ve, I have said in the past, while the lawsuit was going on, that I thought China would get there before us, and I don’t know if we can even know which nation will make it first. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:44] Well, China’s plan to you by 2029 and their list to to dos is build a giant rocket, but one that’s based on their existing technology and they plan to throw it away, build a crew capsule, which is going to be the crew capsule they’re going to be using to resupply their space station. So they will have a lot of to that crew capsule and build a lunar lander. And the little lander technology is essentially going to be a beefed up version of their lunar sample return mission with Chang’e five. So now, like everything that they’ve done, kind of makes sense. Like, oh, I see why. And it’s going to be essentially the same system. That’s going to be their Mars sample return mission that’s going to be launching in 2029. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:29] Plug and play. That’s the way to go. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:31] Yeah, yeah. Keep it simple. All right, well, since we refused to make any estimates, then we don’t have to be held accountable when. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:40] It’s. 

Fraser Cain [00:30:40] True. When times change. Thanks, man. Well, that was fun. 

Pamela Gay [00:30:43] Thank you so much. And thank you to all of our patrons out there. This week I would like to thank, Simon Parton, Stuart Miles or Mills, rather, Jeremy Kerwin, Kellyanne and David Parker Hart, Harold Barton Hagen, Claudia mastroianni, Alex Cohen, conception. Flaco and Esau, Cher. SIM. Mark. Steven Rusnak, Matt Rucker, MH w 1961 Super Symmetrical Abraham Cottrell, Paula L Hayden, Steven Coffey, Alex Rain, Benjamin. Carrier, Andrew. Stevenson, Vern. Lonely, sound person, Bart. Flaherty, Daniel. Loosely, Gregory. Singleton, Jim. Schooler, Tim. McMeekin, Kenneth. Ryan, Michael. Regan, J. Alex. Anderson, Scott. Briggs, Frodo. Tannenbaum, Jim McGeehan. Bruce I. Amazing father Prax. Szymanski, planet star Glenn McDavid, David Gates, John Drake, the air major, Lew Zealand, Scott Cohn, Marco Rossi, Matthew Horstman, Nyla Scott Bieber and Matthias Hayden. Thank you all so very much. 

Fraser Cain [00:31:53] Thanks everyone and we’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:31:55] Goodbye, everyone. Astronomy cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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