Starship is threatening NASA’s moon contractors, which are watching its progress with a mix of awe and horror.
Elon Musk is planning yet again to rocket beyond the status quo. And if he succeeds, the aerospace giants that won the first space race may never catch him in this one.
Standing in front of the towering Starship rocket at Space X’s southwest Texas “Starbase” on Thursday night, Musk pledged that his most ambitious spaceship yet will make its first journey in the coming months.
“At this point, I am highly confident we will get to orbit this year,” he said in the first update in two years on the invention he acknowledged “does sound crazy.”
“It will work,” he declared. “There might be a few bumps along the way, but it will work.”
Starship is designed to be the first all-purpose space vehicle: a reusable and refuelable spacecraft that can take scores of people and millions of tons of cargo from Earth directly to the moon and eventually Mars — and do it over and over again.
“There might be a few bumps along the way, but it will work.”
If he can pull it off, Musk’s previous breakthroughs — electric cars, reusable rockets for launching satellites, the first commercial space capsule to dock with the International Space Station — might seem, by comparison, to be modest achievements.
“It is the kind of thing we used to talk about as ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do these kinds of things?’” said Scott Altman, president of the Space Operating Group at ASRC Federal.
But NASA officials — and their longtime aerospace contractors — are watching with a mix of awe and horror.
“They are shitting the bed,” said a top Washington space lobbyist who works for SpaceX’s competitors and asked for anonymity to avoid upsetting his clients.
NASA and its major industry partners are simultaneously scrambling to complete their own moon vehicles: the Space Launch System mega-rocket and companion Orion capsule. But the program is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule — and, many would argue, generations behind SpaceX in innovation.
The space agency’s first three Artemis moon missions over the next three years — including a human landing planned for 2025 — are all set to travel aboard the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, which are being built by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and numerous other suppliers and engineering services firms.
But with the SLS’ first flight this year further delayed at least until late spring, concerns are growing that even if it succeeds, the system, at an estimated $2 billion per launch, could prove too costly for the multiple journeys to the moon that NASA will need to build a permanent human presence on the lunar surface.
That makes Starship, which conducted a successful flight to the edge of space last year, especially threatening to the contractors and their allies in Congress.
As Starship progresses, it will further eclipse the argument for sticking with SLS, according to Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer and space consultant.
“Once the new system’s reliability is demonstrated with a large number of flights, which could happen in a matter of months, it will obsolesce all existing launch systems,” he said.
“If SLS is not going to fly more than once every couple of years, it’s just not going to be a significant player in the future in space, particularly when Starship is flown,” he added.
Neither Boeing, the main contractor on the SLS rocket, nor NASA responded to requests for comment on the criticism of the program or Musk’s latest plans for Starship.
Simberg said the biggest breakthrough of Starship would be the “radical cost reduction” it potentially offers, particularly the plan to use tankers in low-Earth orbit to refuel it, which could significantly bring down the long term cost of operations in deep space.
“If the company can demonstrate that its new heavy-lift rocket is not just reusable but, in Elon Musk’s words, rapidly reusable — it will revolutionize spaceflight,” he wrote in a recent paper titled “Walmart, But for Space.”
Musk on Thursday also said “the essential technology — the holy grail breakthrough that’s needed — is a rapid and completely reusable rocket system.”
“So this has never been accomplished before and a lot of people for the longest time thought this was not possible,” he added.
Robert Walker, former chair of the House Science Committee and a space industry consultant, said that if Starship succeeds, the value of the NASA launch vehicle will be seriously imperiled simply because it is not designed to fly nearly as often as Starship.
“If the first Artemis flight is successful, it may be two years until we can get to the second one,” he said. “Musk can roll things out pretty quickly.”
SpaceX has already beat its competitors on transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
The Dragon space capsule has made three successful trips, with another planned for April, while the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner, which was developed under the same NASA public-private partnership, continues to be delayed.
And SpaceX is already playing a key role in NASA’s moon program.
The company was hired last year to use its Starship technology to provide the Human Landing System that will take astronauts to the lunar surface on the third Artemis mission.
It beat out competitors including Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos that is developing its own fleet of rockets and spacecraft in the Texas desert, but has yet to launch anything into orbit.
Altman, the former astronaut, said SpaceX and its Starship could play a much bigger role in NASA’s moon program beyond the landing now set for 2025. “We’ve been trying to get the SLS and Orion together for the Artemis program,” he said.
“Right now Starship is a link in that chain,” he added, referring to the role it will already play in the moon landing. “It’s a technology, it’s a capability we’re going to need.”
It’s unclear how exactly NASA might contract with Starship for future missions. But it could establish a public-private partnership, similar to its arrangement for rides to the space station or for the moon lander.
The implications also go beyond exploring the heavens.
The Pentagon, which has hired SpaceX to launch some of its spy satellites, is also eyeing the new vehicle for “point to point” cargo missions on Earth.
“Starship can carry a C-17 load of cargo and get it anywhere in the world in an hour,” said Walker, who previously served on a SpaceX advisory board but no longer has any ties to the company.
“There are just major uses for this if, in fact, he can pull it off,” he added.
Even Musk himself sounded a cautionary note on Thursday, warning that there will likely be technical setbacks before Starship proves its reliability.
“Orbital flight is really just the beginning,” he said. “There will probably be a few bumps in the road, you know, but we want to iron those out with satellite missions and test missions and get to a high flight rate and have and have something that’s extremely reliable.”
The potty-mouthed D.C. lobbyist, a longtime detractor of SpaceX, described the reaction among his clients to Musk’s presentation on Thursday as “promises, promises, promises.”
But he said such dismissals are passé. “It’s like you keep saying ‘he can’t do it’ but it keeps working. It keeps working. I think people are scared. He’s starting to make people who were never believers think he might.”