In Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk entertained a group of reporters, locals, and space enthusiasts about his vision of a space-faring future, when the human race has expanded to the moon, Mars and beyond. The thing that made it different from hundreds of other presentations of that sort is that Musk had as a backdrop a full-scale prototype of a rocket that he says will make that future happen.
The Starship, as Musk calls it, is a gleaming, stainless steel tower that looks like a science fiction rocket ship from a 1950s movie, according to Ars Technica. The plan will be for that rocket to take a flight of 12 miles in altitude within two months. A future prototype, according to Musk. Could take people into low Earth orbit in six months to a year. The Starship, using an even bigger rocket called Superheavy as a first stage, is planned to take humans and cargos to the moon, Mars and beyond.
It’s a heady vision, especially since Musk plans to use his own money to finance it. He is planning a satellite constellation called Starlink to provide the world with digital voice and internet communications, which, if successful, will provide the cash flow he needs to operate his private space program. Musk is also open to partnerships with NASA, especially with the space agency’s Artemis Program, aimed to return humans to the moon and send them to Mars.
The day before the Musk announcement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine offered a little reminded that SpaceX has other obligations to the American government that it has yet to fulfill. He tweeted, “I am looking forward to SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It is time to deliver.”
Bridenstine was reminding Musk that SpaceX has yet to deliver the crewed Dragon, one of the two spacecraft being developed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station, weening NASA from dependence on the Russian Soyuz. The Commercial Crew program has suffered numerous delays, partly because it was underfunded by Congress during its early years, partly because rocket science is another phrase for something difficult for a reason.
Bridenstine’s jibe was also a not so subtle reminder that Musk’s promises of missions to the moon and Mars may be written in sand. The Starship is orders of magnitude harder to accomplish than the Crewed Dragon.
Nevertheless, the NASA Administrator caught some snark on social media. Rick Tumlinson, a long-time space advocate, was typical in his reaction.
“It’s called a mirror, @NASA, and Congress should look deeply into it before criticizing one of the major innovation drivers on the planet. I would love to see @JimBridenstine say anything similar about SLS, Orion, or the other blatant ripoffs NASA is paying for with our money.”
Tumlinson is referring to the Space Launch System project, imposed on NASA by Congress in the wake of President Barack Obama’s cancellation of President George W. Bush’s Constellation return to the moon program. The Space Launch System is based on older technology than Musk’s Starship and is not reusable. The SLS has cost many billions of dollars and has been ongoing for about the last ten years. The date of the first flight will be no earlier than 2021.
Tumlinson is both right and wrong in his response to Bridenstine’s admonishing tweet.
He is right that SpaceX is a driver of innovation. The company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have pioneered the concept of reusable rockets, regularly landing their first stages for refurbishment and relaunch. Musk famously launched a used Tesla Roadster with a mannequin in the driver’s seat into interplanetary space during the first launch of the Falcon Heavy.
But Tumlinson is wrong to point a finger at Bridenstine concerning the SLS and Orion. The decisions and issues concerning those two spacecraft occurred before his tenure as NASA Administrator. Bridenstine has been working diligently to get SLS and Orion back on track so that they will start flying as soon as possible.
Musk has also said that about five percent of SpaceX’s efforts and resources are being directed to the Starship project. The rest is tied up with more mundane aerospace business, including delivering that Commercial Crew Dragon.
Sooner maybe, perhaps later, the next decade may well dwarf the Apollo era 1960s in the development of spaceflight, if the efforts of Musk, Bridenstine, and many others come to fruition.