SpaceX Proposed Adapting Human Landing System into a Commercial Space Station

Artist concept of the SpaceX Starship on the surface of the Moon. (Credits: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX unsuccessfully applied for NASA funding to begin work on adapting the Human Landing System (HLS) it is building to send American astronauts to the lunar surface into a commercial Earth orbiting space station, according to a newly released government document.

NASA didn’t think much of the proposal, giving the plan a low level of confidence for technical merits and a very low level of confidence on its business plan. Technical details were not well defined, and the proposal lacked a clear business plan, according to a selection statement signed by Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of human spaceflight.

The space agency awarded $415.6 million for space station proposals from Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman under the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program. The commercial stations are designed to provide the United States with uninterrupted access to Earth orbit when the International Space Station is retired in 2030.

SpaceX is building HLS for the Artemis moon program under a $2.9 billion contract from NASA. HLS is an adaption of the Starship rocket/spacecraft that will be launched by the Super Heavy rocket.

Relevant excerpts from the selection statement with minor changes are reproduced below. Long paragraphs have been broken up to improve readability. Acronyms have been spelled out for the sake of clarity.

NASA Level of Confidence Ratings

Selection Statement Excerpts
Signed by Phil McAlister, NASA Director of Human Spaceflight

Technical Evaluation

For the Technical Approach evaluation, SpaceX received a Level of Confidence rating of Yellow (Low).

Its significant strengths included proven speed, safety, and systems engineering in vehicle manufacturing; its early prototype and demonstration plan for Human Landing System (HLS) can increase technical maturity on some CLD systems; and a comprehensive and proven safety and risk management approach.

Its strengths included more than 2 crew members at initial operations; a strong approach to future commercial communications including the maturity of Starlink; and a proven design and strategy for rendezvous and docking.

Its significant weaknesses included a lack of definition on its CLD concept; a lack of definition for
external payload accommodations; a lack of payload capabilities definition in its proposed conversion of HLS into a CLD; and a lack of detail for scaling up Environmental Control & Life Support (ECLS) from a short to long duration capability.

Its weaknesses included limited available payload power for its proposed CLD and proposing a single docking part, which reduces crew and cargo access to the CLD.

Business Plan Evaluation

For the Business Plan evaluation, SpaceX received a Level of Confidence rating of Red (Very Low).

Its significant strengths included rapid development of Starship and a planned orbital mission in the coming year; use of in-house developmental resources; and no dependence on outside suppliers.

Its strengths included strong financial resources, which increase the likelihood of successful execution in the event of cost overruns.

Its significant weaknesses included a lack of business strategy, which fails to meet goals for developing the LEO economy; seeking full reimbursement of its narrowly scoped Space Act Agreement (SAA) costs from NASA, despite leveraging private financing of Starship; no proposed Preliminary Design Review (PDR) on its CLD system, which fails to meet one of the primary goals of the Announcement; and milestones do not objectively demonstrate technical or business progress.

Its weaknesses included its high dependence on HLS without addressing it as a risk.