NASA astronauts have just received training on the spacecraft that can land humans on the moon a few years from now.
Christina Koch and some of her NASA colleagues recently toured SpaceX’s South Texas facility, where the company is building and testing prototypes for its Starship space shuttle system. The astronauts even snapped a selfie with the latest Starship iteration, SN11, which could start on a test flight at high altitude this week.
“Common goals, shared vision. NASA astronauts learn about SpaceX Starship – one element in a growing worldwide field with deeper space exploration systems overlooking the moon and Mars,”
These words served as captions for the selfie, showing Koch and other astronauts Michael Barratt, Matthew Dominick and Reid Wiseman standing in front of SN11 in stainless steel (“Serial No. 11”).
Starship and Super Heavy: SpaceX’s Mars colonizing vehicle in pictures
Common goals, shared vision. NASA astronauts learn about SpaceX Starship – an element in a growing worldwide field with deeper space exploration systems overlooking the moon and Mars. pic.twitter.com/Bwv2hSqzDIM March 23, 2021
Koch and Dominick are in first cadres of 18 astronauts which NASA chose for its Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s.
Starship can end up being a big part of this effort. The SpaceX system is one of three private concepts which NASA considers Artemis’ human landing system. The other two lunar lander ideas are being developed by Dynetics and a team led by Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin.
SpaceXs Starship system consists of a 50 meter high spacecraft, known as Starship, and a giant first stage booster called Super Heavy. Both elements are designed to be fully and quickly reusable, and both will be powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine. The latest Starship will have six Raptors and the latest Super Heavy will have around 30, says SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
SN11 has only three raptors. It does not quite reach space on the upcoming flight; SpaceX targets a maximum height of approx. 10 kilometers.
SN11’s three closest predecessors also performed such a flight. Everything went pretty well, although none of the craftsmen followed the trial from end to end. SN8 and SN9 – which were launched in December 2020 and February 2021 respectively – came too hard to the ground and crashed at the landing site. SN10 successfully hit during the March 3 flight, but failed to hold it together, explodes into a massive fireball about eight minutes later.
Such test flights will continue well beyond SN11. Musk has said that SpaceX aims to get a Starship prototype to Earth this year, and he envisions that the system will be fully operational by 2023. There is already a Starship mission to be launched that year – “dearMoon”, a plane around the moon booked by the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the pursuit of alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.