The hype machine is back in full-time operation as tech-bro hero Leon Skum’s company (SpaceX) prepares a new launch of their very big rocket. The Starship is a big rocket. It weighs about 330 tons and can generate 16 million tons of thrust. The Apollo moon rocket, the Saturn V, was about 220 tons and could crank out 7.5 million tons of thrust. Starship can put about 150 tons of stuff into space (low-earth orbit). The Saturn V payload was about 150 tons.
Fifty years of advancements and we have the same capability as before! SpaceX says that Starship will eventually put 250 tons of payload into space, but that’s not happening yet. They still have to get the first model to work.
The big difference is re-usability. The claim is that they can reduce the cost of launches by an order of magnitude. Again, this is a claim, not a fact. It seems reasonable that a re-usable rocket would be better and cheaper than a throwaway rocket. But this has not actually been demonstrated. SpaceX is a private company. They can say whatever they want. We’ve seen how Uber can carry on for years without ever making a profit. We have no idea if SpaceX is a sustainable, profitable venture or just another gigantic vanity project for everyone’s favorite man-child.
One of the things that con men and carnival barkers do is continuously move the goalposts. It wasn’t long ago we were told that Falcon Heavy would usher in a new era of crewed space flight. Now SpaceX tells us that Falcon Heavy will NOT be used to lift their Dragon capsule into space. That will be later when they build their even bigger, better rocket. Now we have Starship. It’s bigger and better but still in the same league as the retired Saturn V. You know you are dealing with bullshitters when they push promises further and further into the future and never go back and acknowledge the string of lies behind them.
I would like to see Starship succeed. Satellites, those in low-earth orbit and especially the geostationary ones thousands of miles up, are essential to human welfare. We need the information (like weather data) and services (like communications) that these technologies provide. Human spaceflight is dramatic and inspirational, even if it is mostly just theater, and there is a continuing desire to see ourselves out there in the black. I can accept that. But we aren’t going to colonize the moon anytime soon, and Mars is a Heinlein-esque fantasy that would require advances far past our current knowledge base. No, we will not have Matt Damon out there in the red sand with a nuclear reactor. That stuff is movie material, not real life.
Rockets are big, wasteful things. It is hard to put something into space. It is exponentially harder to put human beings into space. The amazing successes of the un-crewed Mars missions (Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity) are proof that robots are much better at being astronauts than people will ever be. As a boy who hero-worshiped Neil Armstrong I understand the emotional appeal of the explorer. But as far as “bang for the buck” goes we are better off sending our remote eyes and ears to these hostile places.
SpaceX obviously has talented and accomplished people or they wouldn’t have pulled off what they’ve done in the rocketry business. It is too bad they have a boor for a CEO. That puts a taint on the whole mess for me. That being said I want to see this re-usable rocket stuff work. The parts get pretty beat up going into space and it takes a lot to refurbish them. I suspect it will cost more (in dollars, energy, and resources) than the projections. Musk is good at painting rosy pictures and people love to give him money. He may be the best salesman in all of human history. Maybe he’s second to Jeff Bezos, but you get my drift.