WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a House committee that SpaceX’s truncated Starship test flight was not a major setback in plans to use that vehicle to land astronauts on the moon as soon as 2025.
Testifying before the House Science Committee April 27 about the agency’s fiscal year 2024 budget request, Nelson said SpaceX expects to be ready to make another Starship launch attempt in as little as two months.
“The explosion, that’s not a big downer,” he said of the April 20 test flight of the integrated Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The vehicle, which suffered several failed engines, started tumbling a few minutes after liftoff and was destroyed by its flight termination system four minutes into what was planned to be a 90-minute suborbital flight.
He explained SpaceX’s “hardware-rich” approach to vehicle development, with several Starship and Super Heavy vehicles in production. “That’s their modus operandi. They launch, and if something goes wrong, they figure out what it is, go back, and they launch it again.”
Nelson said NASA has been in contact with SpaceX and expects the company to be able to launch again soon. “As of today, SpaceX is still saying that they think it will take about at least two months to rebuild the launch pad and, concurrently, about two months to have their second vehicle ready to launch.”
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has publicly offered similar schedules. However, the ability for SpaceX to launch again depends not just on launch pad repairs and assembly of the next vehicle but also completion of an investigation into the April 20 launch and approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the flight.
NASA is closely watching progress on Starship because it selected that vehicle for its Human Landing System (HLS) program two years ago. NASA will use a lunar lander variant of Starship to carry astronauts to the lunar surface on the Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 missions under awards worth a combined $4 billion. The vehicle will also be eligible to compete for landings on later missions.
Asked by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), about the confidence in schedules for upcoming missions, Nelson said he expects Artemis 2 to launch in “the end of 2024” with Artemis 3 following about a year later. A mission manifest published by NASA in March showed Artemis 2 launching in November 2024 and Artemis 3 in December 2025.
“I’m fairly confident, but there are still a lot of things that have to be done,” he said of the schedule for those missions.
That same manifest pushed Artemis 4 out a year from 2027 to September 2028. Nelson said the driving factor for that slip was development of the Exploration Upper Stage for the Block 1B version of the Space Launch System being built by Boeing. “Some additional funding could help remedy part of that,” he suggested.
Democratic members of the committee asked Nelson about the effects of potential budget cuts should an overall spending plan like that narrowly approved by the House April 26, intended to reduce discretionary spending to lower budget deficits, go into effect. Such a plan, those members argued, could reduce NASA’s budget by up to 22%.
“It would be a disaster. We would be delayed,” Nelson said. The same would be true, he added, if Congress passes a full-year continuing resolution, keeping funding at fiscal year 2023 levels rather than the proposed 7% increase for 2024. “That’s not going to be good, either.”
Such cuts, he said, would rule out any effort to move Artemis 4 back to 2027. It would also push out Artemis 5, which will use a lander developed by a second provider that NASA is preparing to select this summer, joining SpaceX. “Without any additional funding, you’re looking ’29, ’30, ’31,” he said. Artemis 5 is currently projected for 2029.
Nelson said he was eager to select a second provider, subtly criticizing NASA’s decision before he joined the agency to select only SpaceX for the HLS program, a decision driven by the available funding and SpaceX’s bid that was far less than its competitors. “We don’t want to leave all of our eggs in the one basket of a SpaceX lander. We want to have another lander.”
That was a relief to the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) “I must say, when I saw that rocket blow up, I thought, thank God there’s no people on board. Sometimes the lowest bidder is not always the best choice.”