The Space Exploration Company (SpaceX) will try again to test-fly the largest, most powerful rocket ship anyone ever built. When they tried on Monday morning, a valve froze. So when the team couldn’t unfreeze it, they continued as they would with a Wet Dress Rehearsal. Actually they got up to the “vent-down” sequence, but couldn’t do that. Did the stuck valve prevent that? SpaceX won’t say. They do say they will try to launch Starship within a sixty-two-minute launch window, between 8:28 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Central Time.
Remembering Apollo XI
To understand the importance of this developmental milestone in rocketry, let’s remember Apollo XI. That first successful landing of a man (two men!) on the moon, and their safe return to Earth, was wonderful. It was so wonderful that for a long time a significant number of people refused to believe it. They could believe the launch, but not the landing or the moonwalk. Indeed some people still won’t believe it, to this day.
Apollo XI captured the imagination of the public through the sheer wonder of watching people walk on another world. But America got to that point by playing on public fear that another power would “seize the high ground of space.” The spectacles of Soviet pilots flying in formation caused the public to continue to fund Project Mercury through its six flights.
That’s because, when NASA looked at a Soviet rocket ship, they saw a low-earth-orbit strategic bomber. Nikita S. Khrushchev, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the most powerful man in Russia, did not help with his empire-building boasts.
Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.
That last might have been a threat to Poland’s diplomatic corps, not the United States – or so says Reuters. Nevertheless, he said a number of other empire-building things. One of them allegedly, was:
Let’s look in 1970 and see who was right!
By 1970, Khrushchev was gone – and Soviet industrial capacity did not eclipse American.
A victim of its own success
Nevertheless, Americans pushed hard to land a man on the Moon – and did so. Project Apollo achieved five more landings. But then, Congress lost interest. And with six landings in the bag, and the Soviets producing nothing close, Congress decided the fight was over.
Actually, the Soviets did try to build a heavy-lift rocket – the N1. It failed four times – and one of those failures destroyed its launch complex. The Americans would not appreciate the magnitude of these failures until decades later. This has led many Americans to say that we were had.
Ironically, Russian-American rivalry also plays a role in the development of Starship – and the rest of SpaceX’ program. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, traveled to Russia to try to buy boosters. At the time, Russia still had the heaviest equipment. According to witnesses, the Russians treated him with schoolboy scorn as they quoted him a price he couldn’t pay. So he said to himself, if he couldn’t buy rockets, why not build them?
So he developed a launch system with a reusable first stage, and a capsule that could at least carry cargo. During this time, the Space Transport System – the “shuttles” – stopped flying. Today, the Shuttles are all museum pieces – except the two (Columbia and Challenger) NASA lost with all hands aboard. Now Americans had to rely on Russian hardware even to live astronauts to their own space station! That is, until SpaceX developed a human-rated, four-person capsule.
Starship – greatest of them all
But SpaceX has never had so narrow a mission as “eclipsing the Russians” or even standing in to replace them. Elon Musk is bent on a project greater than, it seems, any Russian ever dared conceive. He wants to plant an industrial colony on another world – specifically Mars. Mars is, of course, smaller than Earth, with a surface gravity of 38 percent of Earth’s. This would allow a rocket ship to touch down and take off again. Rockets can do that to and from the Moon (and have done it, during Apollo). They can’t do that to and from Earth. Single-stage-to-orbit seems to violate the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation – because very rapidly, usable fuel adds weight to any rocket.
But Starship is powerful enough to carry at least 100 metric tons into space. Then, with orbital refueling, it will carry those 100 metric tons to Mars, and land them there. After that, the crew might be able to make the fuel they need to return to space. Which is why Starship uses liquid methane and liquid oxygen.
Even before Starship goes to Mars for the first time, it will carry larger payloads than ever before – and less expensively, too. That, of course, is how SpaceX pays for its development program.
Advantages and disadvantages to Starship today
Compared to Project Apollo, Starship starts with a key disadvantage – or is it? Contrary to popular belief, SpaceX does not rely on public funds to support research and development that it would not support anyway. NASA paid the full cost of research and development for Project Apollo and its precursor programs (Mercury and Gemini). All that SpaceX has charged NASA is the cost of each launch, plus a small bonus. In addition, SpaceX has developed its own payloads, specifically satellites for a new Internet service called Starlink. Starlink promises to reach even the hardest-to-reach land areas – and recently announced a maritime service.
Another alleged disadvantage: Starship doesn’t have the support of a public eager to “beat the Russians.” Then again, that proved a fickle motive for Project Apollo, which didn’t come close to intended completion. SpaceX has the long-term vision, and the financial strength to carry it through. Unlike any of NASA’s contractors, SpaceX is a one-stop shop – and in essence is running its own space program.
That might be the most wonderful thing about Starship – that a private individual is running the program to develop it and use it. Sixty-five years ago, no one could have imagined that any private individual or company could run a space program. Today, such a private company is preparing to test the largest spacecraft anyone ever conceived. One can only imagine what Nikita S. Khrushchev – or his successor Leonid I. Brezhnev – would think.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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