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Why Musk’s Biggest Space Bet Is Scaring Competitors

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Elon Musk is once again considering moving beyond the status quo. And if he succeeds, the aerospace giants who won the first space race may never catch him in this one.

Standing in front of massive starship rocket On Thursday night at Space X’s “Starbase” in southwest Texas, Musk promised that his most ambitious spacecraft yet would make its maiden voyage in the coming months.

“At this point, I’m very confident we’ll get to orbit this year,” he said in the first update in two years on the invention he acknowledged “sounds crazy.”

“It will work,” he said. “There may be a few bumps along the way, but it will work.”

Starship is designed to be the first multipurpose space vehicle: a reusable, refueling spacecraft that can transport tens of people and millions of tons of cargo from Earth directly to the moon and eventually Mars – and do it again and again.

If he can pull it off, Musk’s previous breakthroughs – electric cars, reusable rockets for launching satellitesthe first one commercial space capsule at dock with the International Space Station — may seem like modest accomplishments by comparison.

“It’s the kind of thing we used to talk about like ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do this stuff? “Said Scott Altman, a former astronaut who is now president of ASRC Federal, a space R&D company.

But NASA officials — and their longtime aerospace contractors — watch with a mixture of awe and horror.

“They piss off the bed,” said a Washington space lobbyist who works for SpaceX competitors and requested anonymity to avoid upsetting his clients.

NASA and its major industrial partners are simultaneously scrambling to complete their own lunar vehicles: the Space Launch System mega-rocket and the associated Orion capsule. But the program is billions of dollars over budget and years behind — and, many say, generations behind SpaceX when it comes to innovation.

space agency first three Artemis lunar missions over the next three years – including a human landing scheduled for 2025 – are all set to travel aboard the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, which are being built by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and many other engineering service providers and companies.

But with the first flight of the SLS this year still delayed at least through late spring, concerns are growing that even if successful, the system, estimated to cost $2 billion per launch, could prove too costly for the multiple trips to the moon whose NASA will need to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface.

That makes Starship, which made a successful flight to the far reaches of space last year, particularly threatening to contractors and their allies in Congress.

As Starship progresses, it will further overshadow the argument for keeping the SLS, according to Rand Simberg, aerospace engineer and space consultant.

“Once the reliability of the new system has been demonstrated with a large number of flights, which could happen within months, it will render all existing launch systems obsolete,” he said.

“If SLS doesn’t fly more than once every two years, it just won’t be a big player in space in the future, especially when Starship flies,” he added.

Neither Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS rocket, nor NASA responded to requests for comment on criticisms of the program or Musk’s latest plans for Starship.

Simberg said Starship’s biggest breakthrough will be the “radical cost reduction” it potentially offers, particularly the plan to use tankers in low Earth orbit to refuel it, which could significantly reduce the cost in the long run. end of deep space operations.

“If the company can demonstrate that its new heavy rocket is not just reusable but, in the words of Elon Musk, rapidly reusable, it will revolutionize spaceflight,” he added. he wrote in a recent article titled “Walmart, but for space.”

Musk also said on Thursday that “the essential technology – the holy grail breakthrough that is needed – is a fast, fully reusable rocket system.”

“So this has never been done before and a lot of people thought for a long time it wasn’t possible,” he added.

Robert Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee and consultant to the space industry, said if Starship is successful, the value of NASA’s launch vehicle will be in serious jeopardy simply because it’s not designed to fly as often. than Starship.

“If the first Artemis flight is successful, it might be two years before we can get to the second,” he said. “Musk can roll things out pretty quickly.”

SpaceX has already beaten its competitors for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Dragon space capsule completed three successful trips, including another scheduled for April, while the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner, which was developed under the same NASA public-private partnership, keep getting delayed.

And SpaceX already plays a key role in NASA’s lunar program.

The company was hired last year use its Starship technology to provide the human landing system that will take astronauts to the lunar surface on the third Artemis mission.

It beat competitors including Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, which is developing its own fleet of rockets and spacecraft in the Texas desert but has yet to launch anything into orbit. .

Altman, the former astronaut, said SpaceX and his craft could play a much bigger role in NASA’s lunar program beyond the now scheduled 2025 landing. “We tried to bring the SLS and Orion together. for the Artemis program,” he said. .

“Right now, Starship is a link in that chain,” he added, referring to the role he will already play in the moon landing. “It’s a technology, it’s a capability that we will need.”

It’s unclear exactly how NASA might contract Starship for future missions. But he could establish a public-private partnership, similar to his arrangement for trips to the space station or for the lunar lander.

The implications also go beyond exploring the skies.

The Pentagon, which has hired SpaceX to launch some of its spy satellites, is also considering the new vehicle. for “point-to-point” cargo missions on earth.

“Starship can haul a C-17 cargo and get it anywhere in the world in an hour,” said Walker, who previously served on a SpaceX advisory board but no longer has any ties to SpaceX. business.

“There are only major uses for it if, in fact, it can do it,” he added.

Even Musk himself issued a caveat on Thursday, warning that there will likely be technical setbacks before Starship proves its reliability.

“Orbital flight is really just the beginning,” he said. “There will probably be a few bumps in the road, you know, but we want to smooth them out with satellite missions and test missions and achieve a high theft rate and have something extremely reliable.”

The DC lobbyist, a longtime critic of SpaceX, described his clients’ reaction to Musk’s presentation on Thursday as “promises, promises, promises.”

But he said such layoffs were outdated. “It’s like you keep saying ‘he can’t do it’, but it keeps working. It keeps working. I think people are scared. He’s starting to make people believe that don’t have never thought he could.