Ihe month has been an eventful one for Elon Musk. The richest man in the world and founder of Tesla and SpaceX has been controversially named Time’s Person of the Year; got embroiled in a Twitter feud over his taxes with a politician he called “Senator Karen” and got a weird new haircut after breaking up with his girlfriend, the pop singer Grimes.
Next month, however, or perhaps a few weeks later if spaceflight gremlins choose to play with the launch schedule, could be a feat beyond anything Musk has done before.
The first orbital test launch of the largest and most powerful rocket ever to come out of Earth – SpaceX’s massive spacecraft, from its headquarters at Starbase in Texas – is seen by many as a way back to the moon for the first time in half a century and possibly the first vehicle to land humans on Mars.
The project that began in Musk’s hyperactive mind over a decade ago is just as ambitious as his statement this week: “I’d be surprised if we didn’t land on Mars within five years. “
Starship will be the first spacecraft in which all components are fully reusable, dramatically reducing the astronomical costs of traditional space travel. It has an unprecedented in-flight refueling capacity, allowing more frequent and efficient operations.
As the visionary behind the return of human spaceflight from American soil last year for the first time since the withdrawal of NASA’s shuttle fleet in 2011, Musk, 50, is convinced his 395-foot spacecraft (120 m), 32 feet more than the Apollo Saturn V, can deliver.
Time magazine, in honoring the billionaire entrepreneur, appeared to acknowledge that humanity’s greatest achievements come from unorthodox minds. Musk, he says, is “a mad hybrid of Thomas Edison, PT Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and travels to Mars.”
Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA chief, said Musk has repeatedly defied traditional space flight rules with great success.
“One of the things that [he] shrewdly figured out how to do this is, whenever there was the slightest doubt about his ability to accomplish something, within a certain period of time afterwards he focused his attention, expertise and talent to go out and demonstrate that you can do it, ”O’Keefe, professor of strategic management and leadership at Syracuse University, told The Guardian.
“And that’s what it is. It’s going to be interesting to see where this goes. [Starship] offers options, very important options.
“Considering, for example, that the lunar surface is not only accessible by multiple means, but also by commercial sources that can perform regular resupply and so on, will be extremely beneficial. “
The spacecraft will be propelled into orbit by a first-stage booster rocket called Super Heavy, to which SpaceX attached 29 of its Raptor engines before sending the entire spacecraft to the launch pad at its Starbase launch pad. this week. With a thrust of around 16 million pounds and a capacity to lift up to 165 tons from the Earth’s surface, Starship is almost twice as powerful as the Saturn V rockets that sent 12 astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972.
“You can really take advantage of the architecture of the spacecraft and access the outer solar system in a way we’ve never thought of before,” Jennifer Heldmann, planetologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Arstechnica. in California. “It could provide a revolutionary new way to explore these worlds.”
Other innovative and speculative uses have been proposed for the new spacecraft, including asteroid destruction missions to protect Earth.
Musk, however, has made no secret of his ambitions to reach the moon and someday colonize Mars to make humans a multiplanetary species.
“The next big thing is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars and bring the animals and creatures of Earth there,” he told Time. “A bit like a futuristic Noah’s ark. We’ll be bringing more than two, however, it’s a bit weird if there are only two.
First, however, astronauts must return to the moon, and Starship is just one of two production spacecraft with the ability to land astronauts there. NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS), which is part of the Artemis program, suffered budget overruns and development delays, pushing its first crewed landing until at least 2025.
SpaceX also has a hand in Artemis, having won NASA’s $ 2.9 billion contract to build its lunar lander and triggering a lawsuit with Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin that was settled in Musk’s favor last month. .
No firm date has been set in January for Starship’s orbital test launch, which follows a series of increasingly successful suborbital flights from Texas over the past two years. If successful, Musk said up to a dozen more flights could follow in 2022, with Starship’s first lunar voyage – a space tourism company funded by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa – slated for 2023.
O’Keefe, meanwhile, remains cautious about the spacecraft’s deeper space capabilities for humans, despite its size and innovation, given that it relies on the same chemical propulsion systems used in spaceflight “since Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard’s first trip was right behind him ”in 1961.
“Mars is 65 million kilometers away,” he said. “We have no way of doing it. No one on this rock knows how to do that.
“The second thing we don’t have is the means to provide sufficient protection to preserve human life. As it is, the radioactivity is so extraordinary that you won’t be able to, let alone come back. These are the two fundamental limitations that I see for anyone who is capable of achieving anything well beyond the lunar objective at this point. “