Starship, part 2

The latest big rocket from SpaceX (i.e., Starship) exploded shortly after its test launch last week. Leon Skum really wanted the blast-off to happen on 4/20, every stoner’s favorite day, and it seems maybe they weren’t quite ready for prime time. SpaceX is a private company so I doubt we will know for sure where the faults were in the system, but I expect the engineers and scientists will have learned quite a bit from this recent failure.

Blasting off rockets into space is difficult stuff. Failure is part of the process. That’s why we have “proving grounds” or big empty spaces out in the desert where rockets can blow up safely and people can learn how to make them better.

Starship, in my mind, is a failed concept. Not because the rocket blew up. That stuff is going to happen. If and/or when the next Starship is launched I suspect it will go a lot better. Eventually they will get a working rocket.

SpaceX created the Falcon series of rockets and they’ve been tremendously successful. The company has shown it can put things into orbit on a remarkably regular basis and for (apparently) a much lower cost per launch than anything else. I say “apparently” because, it bears repeating, SpaceX is a private company and we really don’t know how much they spend and how much they make.

But Leon Skum has a man-child’s vanity problem. He’s not content with a high-quality product. Falcon should be enough for anyone’s résumé but because of its routine successes it has disappeared from the headlines. Note that Starship dominated the news for a few days and there were a lot of gushing stories about how the fiasco was really a success. Certainly the data collected and the analysis to come will be valuable, but just as certainly the whole mess was NOT a success.

Let’s start with the name. Starship? Really? This rocket, like every other rocket, goes NOWHERE NEAR THE STARS. The nearest star is trillions of miles away. That’s right, TRILLIONS. No rocket will ever go a trillion miles. Ever.

Let’s examine the payload. Right now it is listed as 150 metric tons. They claim this will go up to 250 metric tons in a later configuration. Once again we have a claim, not a fact. So let’s stick with 150, and that number is for low-earth orbit (about 200 miles up). The Saturn V that powered the moon flights was built in the 1960s and it could put 140 metric tons into orbit. Sixty years later we have this massive new rocket and it can carry a mere 7% more cargo. I’d say the emperor is lacking some clothes.

Finally let’s think about the Starship’s mission. We are told by Leon Skum and his breathless fanboys that Starship will be used to colonize Mars. Can we please stop with this childish fantasy? We are not going to send colonists to Mars. We are not going to build human societies on Mars. Mars is on average 140 MILLION miles away. The distance between earth and Mars can vary from as low as 35 million miles to as high as 250 million miles. And Mars is a moving target! Rockets don’t take a straight-line path!

At best a flight to Mars would take nine months. Nine months! The best we can do with human spaceflight is a trip to the moon and back. The moon is 250,000 miles away. Saturn V and Apollo sent three guys to the moon and brought them home and it took about a week. Astronauts live in the Space Station for months at a time but they have to be re-supplied every three months. It took DOZENS of missions just to assemble the thing. Those folks are only a few hundred miles away. A “few hundred” is <<<<< (waaaaay less) than “140 million.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: robots make better astronauts. Space exploration will be done remotely. Think about the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. Every day that satellite tells us more about space than any human space explorer could possibly do. Human space explorers have to work hard every day just to stay alive. Breathe. Drink. Eat. And of course void themselves, and sleep. Hubble works 24/7. Space travel means earth orbit. Maybe a few folks will go to the moon (and back). But that’s about it.

Rockets are an old technology. The physics that Werner Von Braun worked out for the Nazis and NASA is the same physics for the SpaceX scientists. The technology is improved, certainly. But the physics is the same. Starship is not a breakthrough. It’s still a rocket, it can only go so far, and it can only carry so much.

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