NASA astronauts test SpaceX Starship elevator for future moon landings

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann (center) and Douglas "Wheels" Wheelock test a SpaceX Starship elevator in support of future Artemis moon missions, in a picture published in December 2023.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

NASA astronauts tested SpaceX's elevator concept for the Artemis lunar lander that will bring humans back to the surface of the moon as early as 2025. 

SpaceX was selected to build the spacecraft that NASA will use for future Artemis program missions to the moon. The company’s Starship human landing system (HLS) will carry two astronauts from the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit to the moon's surface, serve as the crew's habitat for the duration of their one-week stay on the moon and then launch them back to Orion. This will happen later in the decade if all goes to plan.

A mockup of the lander's elevator, which will be used to transport equipment and crew from the spacecraft to the lunar surface, was recently tested by NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Doug "Wheels" Wheelock. The pair performed the test while wearing spacesuits to simulate the constraints of moving and working in the lunar environment, according to a statement from NASA officials. 

Related: SpaceX Starship engine passes key test for Artemis 3 moon-landing mission (video)

"The test allowed the astronauts to interact with a flight-like design of the elevator system, serving as both a functional demonstration of the hardware and providing the chance to receive valuable feedback from a crew perspective," NASA officials said in the statement. 

The mockup elevator has a full-scale basket section with functioning mechanical assemblies and crew interfaces that were subjected to testing. Mann and Wheelock performed tests of the elevator controls and operations as the basket moved along a vertical rail system. Feedback was collected on the available space for cargo, ramp deployment for moving into and out of the elevator basket and the use of various controls, such as gate latches.

NASA’s Artemis 3 mission aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program. The mission is tentatively scheduled to fly in December 2025, but it may be delayed until 2027. That is due to challenges in the development and design of SpaceX's HLS (as Starship has yet to reach space despite two launch attempts) and spacesuits being developed by Axiom Space.

A crewed mission with four astronauts is targeted to fly around the moon in late 2024, at least so far. NASA's Artemis 2 mission will include three NASA astronauts and one Canadian Space Agency astronaut that will be the first mission to test out the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket with humans on board. The Artemis 1 uncrewed mission flew the same spacecraft around the moon in 2022 following a launch on SLS.

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.