Essays and Stuff

Thoughts on a kaboom

Right. Thoughts on the Starship/Falcon Super Heavy launch, and subsequent kaboom.

The NASASpaceflight commentator who described it as “the most Kerbal launch I’ve ever seen” wasn’t kidding, though he may have meant it more positively than I would. At least five of the 33 first-stage engines failed; I’m fairly sure it was actually six. There was some sideways to the rocket as it left the pad that you really don’t want to see. 

Whether 27 or 28 engines were enough to get Starship where it needed to be when it separated from the booster became a moot point when it did not, in fact, separate, and that appears to be where the tumble started that led to the self-destructs being activated.

I think SpaceX will do what SpaceX has done before and build on this — use the data they collected today to fix what went wrong and end up with a working super-heavy lifter. And I think there are genuine use cases for Starship and Falcon Super Heavy.

But I also think that landing humans on the moon is NOT one of those cases, and that NASA needs to look really, really hard at what happened today and conclude that:

1) Starship/FSH is not going to be ready for the Artemis 3 moon landing mission in the currently planned timeframe, not with the safety margin/reliability required — especially given the modifications that are needed to make a moon lander out of it.

2) Especially given that fact, NASA needs to stop pretending, once and for all, that 2024 is a reasonable target date for a moon landing. There was never any spaceflight rationale for that, nor even a geopolitical rationale such as Kennedy had for his end-of-the-decade Apollo target. 

The only reason there ever was to do it by 2024 was to effectively plant a Mike Pence for President sign on the lunar surface (Pence having been the one pushing that date in his ex officio capacity as chair of the National Space Council. As if a Trump re-elected in 2020 wouldn’t be insisting that the 22nd Amendment’s term limit didn’t apply to him. But I digress).

3) Having thrown a mandated target date out the window, NASA needs to re-evaluate the Artemis 3 mission profile altogether and look hard at letting the current Artemis 4 plan — with its lunar lander slot still open to the competing Blue Origin and Dynetics bids — become Artemis 3. 

SpaceX won the Artemis 3 bid by default — by being the only company that could possibly, maybe, if everything went really really right, make the 2024 mark, because it already had a (sorta kinda) working Starship prototype while its competitors only had models, because that’s all they’d had time for, BECAUSE 2024 WAS NEVER A WORKABLE TARGET.

Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, listing the pluses and minuses of the three lander hopefuls would make this post at least a third again as long. Suffice to say that the big showstopper for me with Starship is the hatch being so far above the lunar surface that a *winch* would be required to get crew down to the surface and back up. If that winch fails while the crew is still on EVA? …yeah, sucks to be them. (The other two lander options are at least low enough to the ground to have, y’know, ladders.)

tl;dr: I generally believe SpaceX will iron out its problems with Starship and make it work — but not as a moon lander. (Cargo, maybe, but not people.) NASA needs to realize that and shift its Artemis plans.

This is the bio am I doing this right? Probably not.

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