As humans, we like to put things in buckets, find patterns and apply these to the world. When the model no longer fits, we develop a new one. One very simple model divides the world into people who believe Elon Musk and those who do not. SpaceX seems like this apparition that has come out of nowhere to dominate the space launch industry, dipping its toes only ten years ago and now launching almost every other rocket. It is young, cool and vibrant, a marketing success and a technological success. It’s undeniable, Musk delivers — though not always to the timeframe he starts with. He’s not a bureaucrat who talks in politically correct sentences, he muses and stumbles through his talks, often going off on a tangent, but always coming back to some sort of inspired vision of the future. This is what captures the attention of so many of us. He says he wants to die on Mars, we picture a human settlement with an ageing Musk retiring on the red planet in comfort with a big smile on his face. So it is with curiosity that people the world over tuned in to watch Musk talk about the Starship nearly two weeks ago.
In the backdrop of Musk’s Starship party was a seemingly nasty comment from the NASA administrator regarding the delays in the Crew Dragon following the mishap earlier in the year.
Jim Bridenstine was correct to complain about the progress of the Crew Dragon, there was nothing wrong in what he said, but his timing was awful and he, or his advisers, misread how it might be interpreted. It’s no secret that the Space Launch System (SLS) has churned through billions of dollars and been criticised in audit reports, the constant lofting of disposable rockets by SpaceX’s competitors must also churn through a fair bit of American tax payer funds. But this is not a logical argument, this is politics, where hypocrisy is compulsory and where old news becomes ancient in a matter of weeks.
The backdrop is the reliance on the Russians to launch US astronauts to the International Space Station — in their old but reliable rockets that generate valuable income for Roscosmos. This is a constant thorn in the side of NASA, ever since the demise of the shuttle programme. So along comes Musk, riding in his Tesla, with the solution to all of NASA’s problems, a crewed module atop a Falcon 9 to have American astronauts launch from American soil again. The pace at which SpaceX developed and launched the Falcon 9 and then the Falcon Heavy must have made all of Washington DC jump for joy at the prospect of not having to rely on the Russians anymore. So you can imagine the crash of that joy when the Crew Dragon failed the abort test earlier this year. It not only failed but blew the Crew Dragon apart. That must have given a bit of a pause for thought for any of the astronauts lining up to ride it to the ISS.
One could imagine the frustration in the executive corridors of NASA, and more so this week when it was announced that NASA might need to purchase another seat on a Soyuz. Then there was the well published show and tell, this week, as Jim and Elon patched up their differences and Elon showed off the progress of the Crew Dragon and raised the possibility that early next year could see the first launch. Musk is doing his best to show Jim that even though he’s putting together his Mars rocket, he hasn’t forgotten the ISS taxi.
The week ended in yet another veiled slap to Boeing by way of a pat on the back to Musk. Jim noted that it’s in NASA’s interest to see the Starship successful. This must be the way that business happens now, kind of like a bad parenting technique to manage two fighting siblings. Of course it’s in NASA’s interest to see the Starship a success, because that’s the only way they’ll get to the Moon by 2024, unless the SLS miraculously appears on a launch pad anytime soon.
Musk is building a business, not a one-off space mission. In his presentation at the end of September he discussed the possibilities of having multiple Starships ferrying cargo up to LEO each day, he talked of thousands of launches per year. He admitted that he was thinking of the upper bounds of reality but this is indicative of his thinking. He is not thinking of a hand full of missions to the Moon, he is thinking of establishing a logistics highway that, of course, everyone will pay to use — including NASA. Once he’s built that he’ll move on to Mars. For all of us non billionaires that watch the wrangling and developments within the space industry, we are all being sold the possibility of cheaply getting to the Moon and even Mars — and we love it! Who wouldn’t? Musk lets us dream and shows us that he might actually deliver.