Could a Dragon spacecraft fly humans to the Moon? It’s complicated

Crew Dragon landing
Enlarge / Crew Dragon splashes down into the ocean on August 2.
Bill Inglalls/NASA

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a black-and-white spacecraft raced through the atmosphere, ionizing molecules, and creating a plasma inferno. Amidst this fireball, two astronauts sheltered within the small haven of Dragonship Endeavour, as its carbon-based heat shield crisped and flaked away.

After a few torrid minutes, Endeavour shed most of its orbital velocity. Falling into the lower atmosphere, its parachutes deployed in a careful sequence, and the spacecraft floated down from blue skies into blue seas. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were safe. They were home. For the first time in 4.5 decades, astronauts returned from space and splashed down into the ocean, like the Apollo-era heroes who walked across the Moon.

The landing came as NASA, at the direction of Vice President Mike Pence, is working urgently to return humans to the Moon by 2024. This is a herculean task for the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who is balancing politics, funding, and technical hurdles to push NASA and its contractors forward.

Immediately after the landing, Bridenstine renewed his pitch for this Artemis Moon program during a splashdown news conference. Wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the Artemis logo, he said, “We have to make sure that another generation doesn’t miss this opportunity. Today was a great victory, but it was just a beginning. The Artemis Program is our sustainable return to the Moon.”

Then, Bridenstine added this comment: “If we do things right, we will get the strong bipartisan support that we need.” This was clearly a nod to funding needed to carry out Artemis. But what, exactly, does “do things right” mean, anyway? On the technical side, it means using space hardware that can get the job done. On the political side, it means making choices that satisfy those in Congress who pay the bills.

When it comes to spacecraft, rockets, and the Moon, these two things may not be the same.

This divide could not be more clear when Endeavour splashed down. The success of Crew Dragon, a relatively lightweight, modestly priced, and reusable spacecraft has led some aerospace engineers to suggest the space agency should scrap its plan to use larger, much more expensive vehicles—those championed by Congress for more than a decade—to perform the Moon landing.

After its successful landing in early August, Crew Dragon has proven itself, these advocates say. It’s been to space and back with humans inside. With some modifications, it could be beefed up to support longer-duration missions to carry astronauts to lunar orbit and safely back to Earth. Why wait on the more expensive government vehicles when commercial solutions are already at hand?

“Do we really want to go to the Moon, or don’t we?” asked Robert Zubrin, a US aerospace engineer who founded the Mars Society. “The question for Mike Pence is pretty simple: Do you really want to get to the Moon by 2024 or not? Because we have the tools to go.”

The current plan

Over the last 18 months, Bridenstine has crafted a plan that seeks to balance technical and political concerns in order to reach the Moon.

The administrator understands that commercial space, led by SpaceX, has stepped up and delivered for NASA. He has sought to include these new companies—which tend to work more quickly and for less guaranteed money than traditional aerospace firms such as Boeing—where possible in the Artemis Program. They’ve been allowed in the bidding for projects to build a lander to take humans from lunar orbit down to the Moon’s surface, as well as delivering cargo to the Moon.

Already, some in Congress have kvetched about this approach. Some House Democrats, including Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, have argued that commercial companies should not be allowed to build the Human Landing System. Rather, they say, NASA should design, own, and operate the lander. So far, Bridenstine has been able to push back against this.

But there is a red line he dare not cross. In the Senate, the influential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, has said humans must launch to the Moon inside the Orion spacecraft, on top of a Space Launch System rocket. This may, generally, be considered the position of Congress. And if Bridenstine has any hope of winning Congressional funds for a lunar lander, he has to play by these rules.

Under the current plan, then, Bridenstine has shared contracts across a number of different contractors, both traditional and commercial space. “I think we’ve got a good balance,” he told Ars in an interview.

Politically, his strategy seems to be working, at least for the moment. While Artemis has not gotten all of the funding it needs, it is getting some. But what about technically? Is there any hope of making 2024?


[promo keywords="" brand="" category="" rows="" start=""]