I was sitting at my oldest kid’s soccer practice yesterday, typing away on a scene for the next book, when I looked up and saw this. My first thought was “that looks like a rocket”: not a common sight in Tucson, Arizona. I checked my Next Spaceflight app and, sure enough, SpaceX had just launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base, 590 miles northeast of where I was sitting. After taking a few pics (if you look carefully, you can see the first stage as it falls away), I brought up the live feed on YouTube and watched both at the same time. What a magical time we live in.
“This is the space age, and we are here to go.”
-William S. Burroughs
This is a long read, but worthwhile. It is not hyperbole to say that Starship will change everything. And it will happen faster than the current space industry is prepared to adapt.
From the article:
“There are still major risks on the critical path between now and a fully reusable Starship, but no miracles are required to solve them.
Starship will change the way we do business in space, and now is the time to start preparing.
Annual capacity to LEO climbs from its current average of 500 T for the whole of our civilization to perhaps 500 T per week. Eventually, it could exceed 1,000,000 T/year. At the same time, launch costs drop as low as $50/kg, roughly 100x lower than the present. For the same budget in launch, supply will have increased by roughly 100x. How can the space industry saturate this increased launch supply?
Prior to Starship, heavy machinery for building a Moon base could only come from NASA, because only NASA has the expertise to build a rocket propelled titanium Moon tractor for a billion dollars per unit. After Starship, Caterpillar or Deere or Kamaz can space qualify their existing commodity products with very minimal changes and operate them in space.
Even if the space industry fully understood Starship, I think it would be very difficult for them to plan and adapt rapidly enough to match the coming explosion in launch capacity.”
Casey Handmer's blog
If you haven’t watched the Starship hop from yesterday, take a look at the official SpaceX feed. It doesn’t show the later explosion (yes, it blew up about ten minutes after landing), but there is some really great footage here. The transition to glide at 10:04 and the relighting of the Raptors at 11:41 stand out, but the whole thing is worth a watch.
image: screen grab from SpaceX video
Yes, the landing legs failed. Yes, it stands at an angle after landing. Yes, it blew up ten minutes later. That stuff doesn’t matter yet. The legs were a temporary solution, not the final design. The goal of this mission was to improve the glide and the flip-and-burn maneuver for landing. By those measures, this flight was a success.
Looking forward to SN11.
What’s going on with SpaceX and the FAA? Well, it appears to be complicated. But, with SN9 and SN10 stacked up at the launch pad, let’s hope they resolve their issues soon.
This image of Elon Musk inspecting the wreckage really brings home the size of Starship.
(image: SPadre on Twitter)
In about two hours, if the weather allows, SpaceX will be launching two astronauts in a Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS for the first time. This is a big deal.
Nine years ago, I watched the last shuttle launch with my kids. The oldest was three years old, and the other was one, so they have no recollection of this. Since then, they have grown to awareness in a world in which the US is incapable of launching its own astronauts into space.
This launch means that will now change. But this launch goes beyond just returning human-launch capability to US soil. That’s cool and all, but focusing on it is a bit short-sighted. This launch marks a turning point in humankind’s relation to space.
SpaceX, with its rapid development of Cargo Dragon, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy, has managed to decrease the cost of getting things to space by orders of magnitude. When it is possible to launch lots of stuff cheaply, we’ll launch lots of stuff. Now, with Crew Dragon, SpaceX is going to do that for humans. And when it becomes possible to launch lots of humans cheaply, we’ll launch lots of humans.
Lots of humans and lots of stuff in space means, well, it could mean anything. But mostly, it’s a critical step toward becoming a space-faring civilization. And that’s why this is a big deal.
A year and a couple months ago, I wrote about the SpaceX Demo-1 mission and why it was so important. That mission successfully sent an uncrewed Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS and returned it to Earth. Then, a little over a month later, a Crew Dragon exploded unexpectedly during a static fire test of its abort thrusters. This delayed a crewed mission, while SpaceX investigated the cause and made corresponding changes to the capsule. As is often and quite accurately said: space is hard.
But the wait is over. Wednesday afternoon (May 27, 2020), at 4:33 EDT, SpaceX will launch Demo-2 to the ISS. Aboard that capsule will be two astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, the first launched from US soil since the final shuttle launch (STS-135) in 2011.
Keep your eyes up. Times are weird right now, but we will get through this pandemic. And when we come out the other side, we will be well on the way to becoming the space-faring civilization that we are destined to be. Wednesday’s launch is a big step on the path. I urge you to watch the launch, if for no other reason than as a reminder that history is bigger than the mess we’re in right now.