Astronauts Test SpaceX’s Crucial Moon Elevator

NASA’s Orion spacecraft flies by the moon, with Earth seen rising in the distance, during the Artemis I mission in 2022. Credit: NASA

It sounds like a joke or the stuff of a children’s fantasy novel: taking an elevator to the moon.

But that’s how astronauts plan to get from their spaceship to the lunar surface, and back, in a few years when NASA returns to the moon for Artemis missions III and IV.

The elevator is part of SpaceX’s Starship human landing system, which will not only carry two crew members to the moon but serve as their home for about a week while they explore the south pole, a dark and cold region where scientists believe water ice is buried in craters. The natural resource is coveted because it could supply drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel for future missions, ushering a new era in spaceflight.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Doug Wheelock recently tested a small mockup of the elevator — a crucial element to SpaceX’s solution for getting humans from space to the moon’s surface. This lift will be the portal from which the first woman and person of color step onto the moon.

Tweet may have been deleted The Artemis III launch is currently slated for 2025. NASA has not yet assigned that crew, the first humans on the moon in over a half-century, but the agency did select the astronauts for the preceding Artemis II mission earlier this year. Those astronauts — Reid Wiseman, Christina Hammock Koch, Victor Glover, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Jeremy Hansen — will fly around the moon to test-drive the Orion spacecraft as early as November 2024 without ever landing.

The U.S. space agency has chosen to use private vendors for moon landers to buy down the technical risks and costs of the Artemis program, which seeks to use the moon as a springboard for eventual missions to Mars. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the first selected, and Blue Origin, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ rival space company, was awarded the contract for Artemis V, a crewed mission slated for no earlier than 2029.

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The announcement in May followed a bitter rivalry between the two: Bezos’ company lost its bid for the first lander contract to SpaceX, and NASA opted to extend its deal with the competitor for Artemis IV. Wanting to overturn the decision, Blue Origin sued the space agency unsuccessfully in a U.S. federal claims court last year.

The elevator will be the portal from which the first woman and person of color step onto the moon. Credit: SpaceX

“I’ve said it before: We want more competition. We want two landers, and that’s better, and it means that you have reliability. You have backups,” NASA administrator and former astronaut Bill Nelson said. “These are public-private partnerships. It’s the new way that we go to the moon.”

SpaceX’s elevator will transport equipment and astronauts between Starship’s living quarters, near the top of the lander, and the lunar surface, where astronauts will exit for moonwalks. The demonstration allowed Mann and Wheelock to interact with a flight-like design of the elevator system and provide feedback from a crew perspective.

During the test at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, the astronauts wore spacesuits to get a feel for the mobility challenges they’ll face on their journey. For Artemis III, the crew will wear new advanced spacesuits being developed by Axiom Space. They practiced using the controls for the gate latches and ramp deployment, and they assessed the roominess for moving cargo.

SpaceX’s elevator will transport equipment and astronauts between Starship’s living quarters, located near the top of the lander, and the lunar surface, where astronauts will exit for moonwalks. Credit: SpaceX

As part of the deal, SpaceX will need to demonstrate a successful uncrewed test flight to the moon before Artemis III.

Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris said NASA will include a non-U.S. astronaut among one of its Artemis crews to walk on the moon by the end of the decade. The announcement, which Harris made at a White House National Space Council meeting, is further evidence of how Artemis will differ from Apollo — a collective effort that will join commercial and international partners, rather than go the journey alone.

“We are all here together because we agree space is a place of extraordinary opportunity,” said Harris, who chairs the council. “So our task, dare I say our duty as nations, must be to work together to make that opportunity real and to preserve it for future generations.”

Elisha Sauers is the space and future tech reporter for Mashable, interested in asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In over 15 years of reporting, she’s covered a variety of topics, including health, business, and government, with a penchant for FOIA and other public records requests. She previously worked for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, now known as The Capital-Gazette. Her work has earned numerous state awards, including the Virginia Press Association’s top honor, Best in Show,  and national recognition for narrative storytelling. In her first year covering space for Mashable, Sauers grabbed a National Headliner Award for beat reporting. Send space tips and story ideas to [email protected] or text 443-684-2489. Follow her on Twitter at @elishasauers.

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