In a significant stride towards the ambitious goal of a human moon landing in the near future, SpaceX successfully conducted a ‘cold engine’ start of its powerful Starship engines under lunar-like conditions. This crucial test, conducted in August, demonstrated the capability of SpaceX’s Raptor engine to restart in space after departing Earth, a critical requirement for safely transporting astronauts to the moon’s surface. This achievement brings SpaceX a step closer to its commitment to NASA for the Artemis 3 mission, aiming to land humans on the moon by 2025 or 2026.
However, SpaceX’s journey to this landmark has been far from smooth. The company’s next-generation Starship system, designed for deep-space missions, has faced numerous challenges. In April, SpaceX launched a fully stacked Starship — the largest, most powerful rocket ever built — for the first time, but the launch was marred by severe issues. The Starship spun out of control, was remotely detonated, and caused a debris shower in the surrounding area. Following a SpaceX-led investigation into the mishap under FAA supervision, 63 corrective actions were identified for the Hawthorne, California-based company to implement. Despite these setbacks, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk remains confident, stating that the company has completed all the necessary corrections for an upcoming second launch.
SpaceX Tests Starship Engine for Future Moon Landing
SpaceX, the ambitious aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company, has successfully completed a "cold engine" start on its powerful Starship engines under lunar-like conditions. The test, which took place in August, aims to prepare for a potential human moon landing in 2025 or 2026 as part of the Artemis 3 mission.
A Steaming Cold Start
The test focused on SpaceX’s Raptor engine, demonstrating its ability to restart in space after leaving Earth, a crucial requirement for safely delivering astronauts to the moon’s surface. The test, conducted at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, was showcased in a video posted by SpaceX on X (formerly Twitter), showing the Raptor engine firing in freezing conditions for about three seconds.
Starship’s Journey So Far
Starship, SpaceX’s next-generation system designed for deep-space missions, hasn’t had a smooth ride so far. In April, SpaceX launched a fully stacked Starship —the biggest, most powerful rocket ever built— for the first time. However, the launch was plagued by issues such as loss of control and a subsequent debris shower caused by remote detonation. A SpaceX-led investigation, supervised by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), identified 63 corrective actions. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed that all 57 corrections required for a second launch have been completed, with the remaining fixes needed for future flights.
Progressing Towards Artemis 3
The successful Raptor engine test indicates SpaceX’s progress towards meeting its Artemis 3 obligations. The tests, according to NASA officials, offer early and mission-like validation of the systems necessary for carrying astronauts to and from the lunar surface. They also noted that the successful tests provide NASA with increasing confidence in the readiness of U.S. industry for the mission.
An Alternate Plan
Despite the progress, NASA has prepared contingency plans if Starship is not ready for a moon landing by 2025 or 2026. NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free has suggested that the agency could run an alternate mission with a crew, saving Starship for a future mission such as Artemis 4.
Competition and Controversy
While SpaceX is making strides towards the Artemis 3 mission, it is not the only company vying for lunar exploration. In May 2023, a consortium led by Blue Origin also earned eligibility to bid for missions after Artemis 4. SpaceX was initially selected as the only company eligible for Artemis 3 and Artemis 4, leading to protests from competitors and a temporary halt of the SpaceX contract. However, the contract has been cleared to proceed, and Blue Origin has won the bidding process for a new Human Landing System.
SpaceX continues to push the boundaries of space exploration with its ambitious Starship project. Despite initial hiccups, the company seems to be making steady progress towards its goal of landing humans on the moon in the near future. The successful test of the Raptor engine under lunar-like conditions marks a significant milestone in this journey. However, the competitive landscape and the ever-present risk of technical setbacks mean that the path to the moon is still fraught with challenges.