Speaking in an interview with TIME Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk telegraphed some clear, latent frustration with US space agency NASA, indicating that quite literally building Starship and landing it on the Moon could be easier than convincing NASA that the company is serious.
Although minor progress has been made in the last six or so months, NASA headquarters – for the most part – still effectively operates as if SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle plans do not exist, all while the agency is seriously considering other similarly unproven rockets with years of development remaining. In light of this frustrating inconsistency, Musk has taken to publicly acknowledging that developing, building, and launching Starship completely internally may be an easier (and faster) fight to win than attempting to convince NASA to assist in Starship development or even just be willing to use it as a launch option.
NASA assistance or support could come in any number of forms, ranging from a cost-sharing development contract, a developmental launch contract like the US Air Force’s STP-2 Falcon Heavy mission, or something as basic as publicly expressing support for the SpaceX program and a willingness to launch NASA payloads on it down the road. For now, the closest SpaceX has gotten to public NASA interest in and acknowledgment of Starship is an official Starship render posted by the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).
In a sign of just how unengaged NASA is, the closest SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy vehicle has gotten to an acknowledgment from NASA headquarters is quite literally having an outdated BFR render subtly included in a few slideshows and documents published less than two months ago (late May 2019).
Ironically, despite the fact that Starship – first and foremost – is designed to be a giant, human-rated reusable spacecraft nominally capable of carrying dozens of astronauts into space and back, the US military appears to have been far more receptive to Starship. This is despite the fact that a BFR-heavy bid may have cost SpaceX a development contract last year. Even with the challenges such an ambitious vehicle poses, the US Department of Defense is still interested in at least discussing potential use-cases and providing input that might influence SpaceX’s final design.
Speaking in September 2018, CEO Elon Musk indicated SpaceX’s BFR (now Starship/Super Heavy) program was likely to cost ~$5B – no less than $2B and no more than $10B. However, this answer – provided off the cuff as a response to a reporter’s question – was almost certainly directed at BFR prior to a radical move from carbon composite structures and tanks to stainless steel. Since then, Musk has made some radical claims about the potential of an efficient, stainless-steel rocket, indicating that it could actually cost less to build than Falcon 9 – a far smaller rocket with a fraction of the performance.
In other words, if the potentially low cost of the vehicle itself also translates to a low development cost, SpaceX could quite feasibly develop Starship/Super Heavy from scratch with nothing more than traditional investment rounds. In the first half of 2019 alone, SpaceX has raised more than $1B in funding through three separate rounds, all of which have been described by Musk and other executives as “oversubscribed” – the demand for SpaceX equity far outstrips supply.
“If it were to take longer to convince NASA and the authorities that we can do it versus just doing it, then [SpaceX] might just do it [ourselves]. It may literally be easier to just land Starship on the moon than try to convince NASA that we can.”
— Elon Musk, July 12th, 2019, via TIME Magazine
As such, unless NASA’s attitude undergoes rapid changes, SpaceX may simply leave the agency behind when it comes to space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. In the event that quite literally developing, building, and launching a giant, stainless steel rocket and spaceship is faster, more efficient, and less disruptive than trying to convince NASA to get its foot in the door, SpaceX might have to forge its own path. If SpaceX can raise enough funding to develop its next-generation rocket independently, what comes next is anyone’s guess.
Ultimately, Musk believes that SpaceX can make that Starship Moon landing happen as few as two years from now, with the first crewed landing potentially coming as few as one or two years after that. All told, this ambitious timeline would see SpaceX land humans on the Moon – perhaps entirely commercially – as early as 2022 or 2023.
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