NASA’s Moon Plans Are In Elon’s Hands

Starship is seen on the pad in Boca Chica for a dress rehearsal ahead of its next test flight. Image: SpaceX.
Starship is seen on the pad in Boca Chica for a dress rehearsal ahead of its next test flight. Image: SpaceX.

Asked if the timelines for the Artemis III Moon landing are accurate, NASA chief Bill Nelson had a simple reply. 

“If we land, it is dependent on SpaceX having their [Starship] lander ready,” Nelson said at a hearing yesterday. “Now, they have hit all of their milestones, and in a couple of weeks they are going to launch that huge rocket…It is my hope that SpaceX will be ready with their lander.”

Deadline pressure: NASA expects the Artemis III mission to launch no earlier than September 2026, following a planned crewed orbit of the Moon in the Artemis II mission in September 2025. But given the tight turnaround, NASA officials say that Artemis III’s landing plans could change.

“If we run into issues in test, we may choose an off-ramp,” NASA Artemis III mission manager Mike Sarafin said yesterday at a meeting organized by the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “Right now, we are fundamentally focused on Artemis III being a human return mission.”

Even if the lander is ready, Sarafin said, circumstances may force changes in the plan.

“There are scenarios where we end up doing a touch and go,” Sarafin said. “We may only be able to stay a day…or we can find ourselves in a position like we had on Artemis I where we are comfortable enough that we can add objectives. We plan for both ends of that spectrum.”

When Starship? The megarocket’s next flight is expected in early June, on pace of about one flight per quarter, following a wet dress rehearsal this week; there’s still no FAA license for the launch. “The first day we get that license we’re going to fly,” SpaceX’s Starbase General Manager Kathy Leuders said at an event May 14. 

The goal of IFT-4, per SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, is getting Starship through “max reentry heating.” In the March flight test, the vehicle was unable to maintain orientation through reentry and broke apart. 

Behind the scenes: NASA has chosen three scientific payloads for Artemis III that will be staged inside the Starship lander when astronauts get on board in lunar orbit, and integration work is beginning. Asked about Starship’s interior cabin, NASA HLS surface lead Logan Kennedy wrote, “[I] can’t share anything about interior spaces (they’re awesome though!)” 

And while even the cabin dimensions are proprietary, Kennedy gave some insight into the details where engineers are focused now: “The cabin atmosphere for [Artemis III] is in trade now as we balance flammability (O2%) and EVA time.”

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