As part of a NASA program that will select one or two commercial crewed Moon landers, SpaceX is busy testing Starship and prototyping hardware and most recently built and demonstrated an elevator “in a very short period of time.”
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Known as the Human Landing System (HLS) program, NASA selected three providers – a Blue Origin-led consortium, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to build prototypes and compete for one or two follow-on contracts back in April 2020.
SpaceX’s Starship offering was deemed the riskiest solution and the company received a middling $135 million to Dynetics’ ~$250 million and the “National Team’s” ~$570 million.
For their ~$820 million investment, it’s unclear what exactly NASA has gotten from its two best-funded teams aside from paperwork, a few completed design reviews, and two low-fidelity mockups mostly made out of cardboard, foam, and wood.
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Meanwhile, in the ten months since SpaceX received its $135 million, the company has built no less than eight full-scale Starship prototypes, performed a dozen or more wet dress rehearsals and static fires with said prototypes, and performed two powered hops and two high-altitude test flights. Now, to add to that list of low-cost achievements, SpaceX has also built and tested a functioning prototype of the elevator Starship would use to lift and lower astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
SpaceX’s proposal is certainly a unique one, with Starship being no less than several times taller and heavier than both its prospective competitors. However, Blue Origin’s extraordinarily complex three-stage, four-component lander – requiring a separate transfer stage, descent stage, ascent stage, and crew cabin – makes even Starship seem somewhat reasonable.
Notably, that massive 8-10m (25-32 ft) stack of separate spacecraft – crew cabin at the peak – would force NASA astronauts to transit a several-story ladder to and from the lunar surface.
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