Starships mean gas stations in space, and so much more

NASA press releases often come and go where the world is left to ponder a message one step removed from chicken bones strewn on the floor-mat. If it’s not the acronyms, it’s the lingo or the leaning to put out only the facts, not what they mean. But if NASA ever buried the lede, it was on April 16, 2021, announcing the selection of SpaceX to build its lunar lander. A year and a half later, the choice of such a massive ship for astronauts to land on the Moon still overloads the conversation. You can’t stop hearing Jan saying Starship, Starship, Starship!

So much more has gone unsaid, buried in a few threads, meetings, and obtuse NASA documents. With the Starship lunar lander, NASA will also get in-space refueling, so propellant tankers. Then there is the magic phrase “and wait for it, if you order now,” where we also get a gas station in space, and, wait for it again, possibly space commerce that will make the rest pale by comparison.

SpaceX lunar lander selected by NASA. Credit SpaceX.

A large lander that hides the real stories behind it is not new. Long ago, NASA had another lander on the drawing board, causing a stir for not quite what it seemed. This semblance is so, even as the lander then and the lander (err, Starship) today could not be more different. The common thread is the world these spaceships live in, with laws of physics and limits to NASA’s budgets.

In NASA’s last plan for a return to the Moon, the Constellation program drew up a lander that, like other parts of the project, screamed “Apollo on steroids.” The Altair lander was born from ambitious goals, and its size said as much. After all, the lunar return plan was about a lunar outpost to stay, more than a series of quick visits. Altair would stretch NASA’s plans to their limit, and past the breaking point, at two or three times as large as the little Apollo lander that first took astronauts to the Moon. Now imagine a meeting where a lowly engineer asks in a Tom Hanks, “I don’t get it” kind of moment, “where is our lunar outpost?”

Some blank stares later, and in more meetings to follow, no one wants to put the lunar outpost on the schedule vs. funding. Any outpost. I’m told, “not yet.” The budget over time is up on the screen, a basic profile, but still, advertised as the plan. There is a star icon far to the right with an unremarkable note like “crew landing.” We show launchers, spacecraft, a lander, and other big-ticket items like the International Space Station. Yes, the ISS was in the last Moon plan. “But where is the permanent outpost, delivered by that lander?” I asked.

Also, and unbelievably, a thought stayed on the shelf way past its due date where funds for the lunar lander (and more) would come from de-orbiting the ISS five years after we completed its construction.

Obvious as it seems, I thought I was missing something, except I wasn’t. Months later, probably not from persistence on my part, an outpost wedge showing funding years before the advertised lander delivered it was (finally) added. This edit came in time for murmurs of a committee, then a program cancelation. Such odd behavior was likely a symptom of why this last plan’s demise was inevitable. This obvious addition should not have been that difficult.

Everyone knew the real reason a lander delivering an outpost seemed an aside in the last lunar landing program. There was no funding and, worse, no plan for funding, not for a lander, and even less for the critical goal of the whole project, an outpost. Being broke is not a fatal flaw, a lander being many years away and an outpost even further. (We would have returned to the Moon a couple of years ago.) The fatal flaw was the lack of interest in building a story that could credibly show how funding might show and add up in the big picture. I also knew this but believed putting all steps, even ones no one had plans for, on a schedule to stay on the Moon would begin the conversation about what we must do differently.

Also, and unbelievably, a thought stayed on the shelf way past its due date where funds for the lunar lander (and more) would come from de-orbiting the ISS five years after we completed its construction. This notion was easily removed from early schedules but not from some hearts and minds. None of this about planning not adding up, and more poor assumptions, made the headlines alongside pictures of the huge lander, but the lander is what bubbled them up. The lander was big, and so was everything else, and with time we would return to the Moon to stay. That buzz buried the real ledes then, for a time, until they all unburied themselves at the cemetery and wandered everyone’s way.

Congressional Research Service report from 2010 where the ISS had a “currently planned termination at the end of 2015”

NASA’s schedule from 2007 carried on an implied and flawed assumption of an early ISS demise.


“NASA buys lunar lander for only $3 billion.”

Today’s NASA lander will be a Starship, but the fanfare is not hiding bad news. Quite the contrary, this is a Starship for only a few billion dollars out of NASA’s coffers. That’s the kind of money NASA civil servants find between the sofa cushions in the Director’s office. Well, maybe the sofas in DC, among the Associate Administrators. For comparison, the commercial crew Dragon spacecraft cost NASA about as much to develop, $2.5 billion (in 2022 dollars). For starters, a headline that did not bury the lede a year and a half ago would have been “NASA buys lunar lander for only $3 billion.” Yet even this misses the mark.

With the Starship lunar lander, you get in-space refueling. The idea is simple. Gravity gives us Earthlings only a hand full of options for exploring our neighborhood. One, you arrive in Earth orbit running on fumes. That is unless you have a giant rocket putting in orbit a rather large throw-away stage with enough fuel to push a small ship to the Moon (that must also have its own fuel to come back.) Two, you can put parts and pieces in orbit and meet up, or hook them up, now able to go places. (Today’s NASA plan is a variation on this.) Or third, you can fill-er up.

From September 2022, more information on the SpaceX Starship as NASA’s lunar lander, which means Starship tankers and a Starship propellant depot – a gas station in space. Credit NASA, “NASA’s Initial Artemis Human Landing System,” Dr. Lisa Watson-Morgan, Mrs. Lakiesha Hawkins, Mr. John Crisler, Mr. Larry Gagliano, Mr. Rene Ortega, Dr. Thomas K. Percy, Ms. Tara Polsgrove, Mr. Joe Vermette.
Excerpt from the April 2021 NASA selection statement for the SpaceX Starship as a lunar lander.

NASA is no stranger to the idea of refueling in space (nor am I). After the last Moon plan’s demise, NASA chartered a team to see what might be salvaged and add up inside realistic NASA budget prospects. At the time, we began with a gas station in space, a “depot” filled by “tanker” spacecraft. The ship that would leave Earth orbit followed, filling up at the gas station before heading out to the Moon or further. The elegance was in using existing or up-and-coming launchers, creating a market for a commodity provided to NASA on a commercial basis. This idea was not about delivering people or complex one-of-a-kind satellites but addressing the simplest, largest mass necessary to leave Earth orbit – propellant.

The scale we looked at ranged from 100 tons (metric) to over 200 tons of propellant (fuel and oxidizer, though often said as “refueling.”) In reverse, and to simplify, we later explored refilling a stage directly from the tankers, skipping the depot middle-man. Imagine fueling your car from a small tanker truck, minus the gas station.

For comparison, NASA’s new Starship lander will be in a field of its own – clocking in at a massive 1,200 tons of propellant, and perhaps transferring 100 tons or more of propellant per trip. We can imagine a Starship depot will similarly hold about 1,200 tons of propellant to fill a Starship to leave for the Moon. That’s over ten times the size of the smaller gas station in space NASA looked at in 2011. In reverse from our evolution a decade ago, SpaceX began with the notion of refueling direct from tankers to stage, but they now see the need for a middle-man depot to service such a large-scale Starship. So launch your lander Starship after it can fill up all at once and don’t keep this pricier and crew-capable Starship variant waiting for tanker after tanker.


But wait, there’s more!

NASA press release, April 16, 2021 (from an alternate universe)

Starship tankers, Starship depots, and Starship lunar landers – but wait, there’s more. Would anyone else like to fill-er-up? If you have 1,200 tons of propellant in low Earth orbit, might you decide to sell some to others? After all, NASA’s lunar missions may not buy up all the fuel and oxidizer available. When NASA first launched astronauts directly to the Moon, the stage that entered Earth orbit with the small Apollo spacecraft and lunar lander needed about 75 tons of propellant. Some years from now, we may have at the ready 16X this amount, just begging to fill up other large stages, all put in orbit more efficiently, being near empty when launched.

So as not to bury the lede, imagine the Starship-lander announcement had been “NASA buys lunar lander for only $3 billion, and gets a free gas station in space too!” The news clip would add a little history going back to 2011 when refueling in space was verboten, then jump to six months earlier, as NASA partnered with companies to work on in-space propellant transfer. All this would be a lot to fit in a headline, not as short and likely to draw attention as “man bites dog.” A Starship, a return to the Moon, changes in policy and politics, the limits of physics and budgets and depots oh my. Last time, a lander showed the breaks in NASA’s plans to land on the Moon. Today we have a lunar lander that breaks all the rules. We can look forward to the headlines.

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