A senior NASA official said this week that SpaceX has done “very well” in developing a vehicle to land humans on the Moon’s surface.
NASA chose SpaceX and Starship for its Human Landing System in 2021. Starship was the riskiest of NASA’s options as it is a large and technologically advanced vehicle. However, NASA had confidence in SpaceX based on previous work with the company.
According to Mark Kirasich, NASA’s deputy associate administrator who oversees the development of Artemis missions to the Moon, the new Raptor rocket engine and the transfer and storage of liquid oxygen and methane propellant in orbit were two of NASA’s top technological development priorities.
However, Kirasich noted that SpaceX had advanced significantly in both areas during a Monday subcommittee meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council. He updated SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship launch system and revealed that the commercial space company is constructing a new Raptor engine daily.
The Raptor rocket engine is essential to Starship’s success. The Super Heavy booster, the vehicle’s first stage, is powered by 33 Raptor 2 engines, and the Starship upper stage is propelled by another 6.
These engines must successfully re-light on the Moon’s surface for the lunar mission to successfully return astronauts to orbit inside Starship. The astronauts will end up dead if the engines malfunction.
“SpaceX has moved very quickly on development,” Kirasich said about Raptor.
“We’ve seen them manufacture what was called Raptor 1.0. They have since upgraded to Raptor 2.0, which first increases performance and thrust and secondly reduces the number of parts, reducing the time to manufacture and test. They build these things very fast. Their goal was seven engines a week, and they hit that about a quarter ago. So they are now building seven engines a week.”
If all goes well, by the end of 2024, Starship could conduct an unmanned test flight to the Moon’s surface, indicating that NASA is just one short step away from returning humans to the Moon.