Musk Says That Refueling Starship for Lunar Landings Will Take 8 Launches (Maybe 4)

The fight over who gets to take the Artemis astronauts back to the Moon continues! It all began when NASA announced that they had awarded the contract for its Human Landing System (HLS), the reusable lunar lander that would ferry the Artemis III astronauts to the lunar surface. This decision did not sit well with the other two finalists, Blue Origin and Dynetics, who appealed the decision because NASA was showing “favoritism.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) rejected these appeals, which has prompted Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to bring out the big guns. In addition to filing a lawsuit in federal court and lobbying Congress, they have also waged a public relations war against SpaceX itself, calling their safety record and into question. In response, Elon Musk took to Twitter to address Blue Origin’s claims and set the record straight.

Blue Origin filed the lawsuit on August 13th in the US Court of Federal Claims, which addresses monetary claims made against the U.S. government and has jurisdiction wherever protests are made in response to GAO reviews. In a statement that accompanied the filing, a Blue Origin spokesperson repeated previous claims about NASA’s procurement process:

“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System. We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.” 

Musk weighed in on the controversy online in response to a Twitter post made by Christian Davenport, a space reporter with The Washington Post. Reporting on the ongoing controversy, Davenport posted an excerpt from Blue Origin’s legal filing. The excerpt refers to the report made by the GAO in response to protests issued by Blue Origin and Dynetics back in April (shortly after NASA announced its decision to go with a single contractor).

In addition to reiterating their previous claims that SpaceX received “preferential treatment,” the filing also drew attention to what it feels are performance and safety issues with SpaceX’s HLS concept:

“We are especially concerned with the lack of flight readiness reviews (FRR) in SpaceX’s proposal. SpaceX’s complex approach requires 16 consecutive launches with only three total flight readiness reviews instead of one for each launch which is consistent with common industry practice.

“Flight readiness reviews are fundamental to safety and are especially important with reusable vehicles and multiple launches in rapid succession. We continue to urge NASA to restore competition and immediately award a second provider. Two providers ensure greater safety and mission success, promote competition, and control costs.”

The crux of Blue Origin and Dynetic’s appeal to the GOA had to do with the acquisition strategy of the HLS program. As part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2), NASA hoped to contract with two of the three finalists. The purpose of this was to “create the most competitive environment practicable, maximizing the likelihood of successful development that will culminate in crewed demonstration missions.’”

Infographic produced by Blue Origin criticizing the Starship likely performance. Credit: Blue Origin

However, shortly after announcing that SpaceX would receive an Option A contract for the HLS design, NASA stated in a Source Selection Statement was due to budget constraints. “While it remains the Agency’s desire to preserve a competitive environment at this stage of the HLS Program, at the initial prices and milestone payment phasing proposed by each of the Option A offerors, NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single Option A award,” they stated.

This prompted Blue Origin and Dynetics to claim that NASA had abandoned its commitment to fostering a competitive environment. They further accused NASA of acting in bad faith by failing to explore other options, such as consulting the potential contractors and letting them know that the situation had changed since the Appendix H, NextSTEP-2 solicitation had originally been made.

In response, NASA issued a stop-work order on April 30th until the issue could be resolved with the GAO. On July 30th, the GAO ruled in NASA’s favor, despite Bezos’ offer (made two days before) to put up $2 billion of his company’s own money to cover the cost of the HLS procurement (out of a total cost of $6 billion). Since then, Bezos has shifted tactics to lobbying Congress for more funding for the HLS program while filing a lawsuit in federal court.

In addition, he’s also launched a PR campaign against NASA and SpaceX with a series of infographics and statements (which can be found on Blue Origin’s website) that draw attention to the complexities and risks inherent in SpaceX’s HLS system (a modified version of the Starship). This echoes Blue Origin’s previous statement to the GAO, where they claimed SpaceX had a sloppy record with the Starship, evidenced by how several SN prototypes had been lost.

In response to Davenport, Musk chimed in to correct some of Blue Origin’s bolder claims, tweeting that “16 flights is extremely unlikely. Starship payload to orbit is ~150 tons, so max of 8 to fill 1200 ton tanks of lunar Starship. Without flaps & heat shield, Starship is much lighter. Lunar landing legs don’t add much (1/6 gravity). May only need 1/2 full, ie 4 tanker flights.”

“Note, should be “refill”, not “refuel”. ~78% of propellant is liquid oxygen, only ~22% is fuel,” he added in a subsequent tweet. Moving from the technical to his company’s performance record, he added: “However, even if it were 16 flights with docking, this is not a problem. SpaceX did more than 16 orbital flights in first half of 2021 & has docked with Station (much harder than docking with our own ship) over 20 times.”

In keeping with the way Musk and Bezos have traded bards via social media in the past, Musk went on to throw some shade on Blue Origin and its accomplishments. In one tweet, Musk posted a picture of Blue Origin’s lunar lander (the Blue Moon) at a conference with its balloon (simulating where the liquid hydrogen tank would be) looking deflated. Musk captioned the image with the word, “Somehow, this wasn’t convincing…”

Much like his previous comments mocking Blue Origin’s failure to reach orbit with any of its rockets, Musk also took the opportunity for some good old-fashioned mockery. “If lobbying & lawyers could get u to orbit, Bezos would be on Pluto rn,” he said. Two days later, he threw more gasoline on the fire, saying: “The sad thing is that even if Santa Claus suddenly made their hardware real for free, the first thing you’d want to do is cancel it.”

A similar BO graphic, extolling the simplicity and effectiveness of their own design. Credit: Blue Origin

It’s a sad thing when billionaires fight over who is getting “preferential treatment” by the federal government. Alas, this ongoing struggle over the HLS contract is not the only issue causing delays with the Artemis Program. In addition to the delays with the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule, NASA also has problems getting the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMU) spacesuits ready.

Because of this, there is currently serious doubt that NASA will be able to send a crewed mission to the lunar surface by November of 2024 (e.g., the Artemis III mission). Then again, there have been doubts about this expedited deadline ever since it was issued back in 2018. Throughout, NASA has continued to persevere and keep its eyes set on the overall goal: to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years – this time, to stay!

Further Reading: Space Policy Online