With Orbital SpaceX Starship – Cancel SLS and Fund Moon Colonization

Doug Plata wrote an article on the Space Review that indicates that Starship to Orbit should be a policy tipping point. Orbital Starship is a historic transformation.

It is the vehicle which will let us spread beyond Earth.

Super Heavy Starship is not only developing the largest and most powerful rocket in history, but SpaceX factories that will crank them out by the hundreds.

A fully and rapidly reusable super heavy lift vehicle will crush almost all other rockets. Placing 400 Starlink satellites into orbit per launch in which most of the cost is only propellant. Who could compete with that?

SpaceX has experience with human rating vehicles (Falcon 9 and Dragon) and they are fully committed to developing Starship to the point where they can launch crew starting with the Dear Moon mission slated for 2023.

Awkward Moments

1. When Starship deploys up to 400 Starlink satellites at a time. It will be clear that the heavy cargo capability of SLS can be provided by another system for pennies on the dollar.

2. if the Lunar Starship ever docks with Gateway, the size comparison with Gateway will appear silly. Two Starships simply dock with each other and transfer propellant from one to another.

Doug Plata argues that space policy makers really ought to accept the reality of where things are headed. When Starship achieves orbit, then SLS should have its overdue cancellation.

They should commit to fully utilizing Starship’s capabilities. NASA should do an evaluation of what vehicles are actually necessary.

We need to set aside the endless 3D printing challenges for later and proceed with inflatables, a technology with three examples in space now. Lunar habitats and supporting infrastructure are a much better way to spend the $2 billion a year.

SOURCES- Space Review, Doug Plata
Summary by Brian Wang of Doug Plata writing

42 thoughts on “With Orbital SpaceX Starship – Cancel SLS and Fund Moon Colonization”

  1. When it is a governments SHLV there is no need for a back-up (Saturn V, Shuttle, Ares, SLS). But the moment we get a much less expensive commercial SHLV, suddenly we need a very expensive government "back-up" that we won't want to use because of its tremendous expense. I'd much rather use that money to purchase a large number of Starship flights AND develop the payloads to take full advantage of that capability. There would also be so much money left over that we could use that to incentivize a commercial competitor.

  2. Elon has addressed this issue. It comes down to calculating crew safety. If you can make the Starship safe enough then you reach the required safety level. If you have an unsafe rocket but an escape system then you can also reach the required level of safety. It remains to be seen if Elon can make his rocket safe enough to reach the required levels without an escape system. I myself am doubtful but willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (i.e. wait and see).

  3. NASA has been very over priced in many of their endeavors because, like all government funding, it’s not their money that gets wasted. SpaceX, for all its flaws, requires “practical” (meaning affordable) success
    Or they cease to exist. It’s a much harder model but, it’s a better one. SLS is a boondoggle. Give the contracts to Musk and SpaceX. They’ll get us back to the moon and we’ll have a practical reason for being there…

  4. They already have. Kilopower.

    From the Wikipedia…

    Kilopower is an experimental project aimed at producing new nuclear reactors for space travel.[1][2] The project started in October 2015, led by NASA and the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).[3] As of 2017, the Kilopower reactors were intended to come in four sizes, able to produce from one to ten kilowatts of electrical power (1-10 kWe) continuously for twelve to fifteen years.[4][5] The fission reactor uses uranium-235 to generate heat that is carried to the Stirling converters with passive sodium heat pipes.[6] In 2018, positive test results for the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) demonstration reactor were announced.[7]

  5. Hey NASA – doing something that SpaceX can't do. Build turnkey mini-fission power systems for space, moon and Mars deployment. Solar is not going to cut it long-term or long distance from the Sun.

  6. Fairly easy to put an abort system on Starship, as long as the crew size is kept down: You just mount a few escape pods behind panels secured with explosive bolts. Really just Dragon capsules set up for the job.

  7. STS is too expensive and probably won't be functional soon enough (if ever) to be a backup. Right now backups would be… more starships or even F9s and FHs. I bet BO or the rest will be available for backup before STS.

  8. 3D printed radiation shielding shells for inflatable habitats always struck me as a nice intermediate step. Requirements are a lot less demanding than fully printing a hab. It just has to stay intact under weight, doesn't have to be air tight, or safe to expose breathing air to it, or fireproof, etc.

    For short stay habitats you can do without the printed shelter, so they aren't a schedule breaker early on.

    If printing an arched roof seems too challenging to attempt right away, you can add an intermediate development stage of just printing a vertical wall around a hab to pile dirt/regolith against – then store food and water and such on the top level of the inflated hab for some shielding there.

  9. It's not about SLS vs. Super Heavy, obviously Super Heavy is a better rocket. It's about Orion vs. Starship. Orion has a launch abort system. Can you somehow put a launch abort system on such a big beast? If not mass space travel will have to wait for well matured Skylon like solutions, you know landing cross section. But still Dragons can support dozens of astronauts at a given time in orbit doing wonderful things with the thousands of tons cargo launched to them by Starships. For O'Mars and all.

  10. I think the concept goes with the place, not the building. Apollo certainly not permanent on Moon. Skylab was intended to be permanent LEO start, as you say was abandoned until being saved by Shuttle, which was late. Not even the current NASA lunar surface base is planned for continuous, just one visit per year for ten years, but *permanent* as in ongoing indefinitely. I can hardly wait. Whether Skylab or ISS, LEO is "The historic prize is humanity's first permanent foothold off Earth". Perhaps more importantly, our first off planet foothold, freeing us from gravity prison floors forever.

  11. Does ISS count as more permanent than Skylab?

    Sure, ISS lasted longer, but that's for political reasons, not technical ones. Skylab could have been expanded and kept going just as much if the support vehicles hadn't been cancelled to pay for the shuttle.

  12. You need a backup system. relying on one is absurd in so many ways. Look at the STS project. while it wasn't often achieved, if one crew was stuck in orbit, a second shuttle COULD go up and perform the "rescue."

    Ditto here, , SLS can be the backup, and having a rival tech going, often helps both programs, especially if they are required to Tech share.

    Let Elon go and do his thing. It's his dime and it'll STILL be cheaper than SLS. But we need to do SLS as well just to have an alternative. Galactic, Blue Origin and the rest are sadly distant in this space race, so let's get on with it. I wanna spend my 401 on a ride into space! 🙂

  13. Those who start using extraterrestrial resources will quickly out pace anything launched. They will soon be supplying Earth with more than Earth can launch, or even has. They may or may not use Musk rockets to set up, but he is not one of them. Yet. When that happens, if soon enuf, he could win as you say.

  14. The need for surface habitats is the hard one. To practice for Mars? That assumes surface as goal, circular logic. Orbital O'Neill? Obvious. Already started. The future!

  15. Better yet, use lunar glass to make the diffusing/diffracting *screens*. Then, you also open Space to more solutions to Earth problems. Like O'Neill plans from 70s.

  16. Actually, see my BIS reference *above* for notion that even Moon is too much gravity, Bennu instead. But close call. No micr0g on Moon. Harder to put stuff there than in orbit, from Earth. *If* you assume all material is useful in Space, then when you move it into lunar orbit is equal effort. The constant sunlight, micr0g and volume, on and on O'Neill stuff, are the difference. UNLESS you predefine the surface as the goal, Moon or Mars, or Earth. Now, of course, to the extent you will be on Moon, use the stuff there. But there is nothing to do on the Moon except practice for Mars, science/prospecting, and mining. Most everything else is easier in Space than on Earth, so obviously easier than on Moon or Mars. Much new and exciting stuff requires micr0g, no other way.

    edit: https://newatlas.com/physics/coldest-temperature-recorded-quantum-gas-freefall/

  17. It's too bad the term 'Sky Net' was used in a certain famous movie. 'Sky Net' would be the perfect name for a lot of LEO satellites providing worldwide internet connection.

  18. Because the Moon is where the most easily accessible material resources are. Even O'Neill recognized that. But instead of exporting that mass, it can be utilized locally. O'Neill wasn't aware of the lunar water and organics that NASA proved in 2009.

  19. With enough refueling, Starship can go directly to Luna without going through the Gateway. When it goes directly on a privately-funded mission the decision-makers will be faced with a new reality drawing into question the need for Gateway. Will the decision makers blind their eyes to what everyone else can see simply because they had previously made a compromise? I think it more likely that they'll make more compromises.

  20. When the Shuttle ended, its budgetary space didn't just completely disappear but was available for multiple different projects. Given the capability that Starship will make available for NASA, it needs to think about developing Starship payloads such as habitats. Technically, there is little difference between a government base for scientific purposes and an initial settlement. Both need power, habitation, life support, sanitation, recycling & ISRU, etc. The historic prize is humanity's first permanent foothold off Earth and that is something that US space policy could pursue via Starship.

  21. My article made the point that NASA will soon face a situation where they will have access to a vehicle that can transport large amounts of cargo or crew. Large, instant inflatables would allow large numbers of passengers a place to reside. But NASA's 3D printed habitat fascination pushes habitation out indefinitely.

  22. The first method would require enormous amounts of energy, not coming from fossil fuels, but from thousands of fission or fusion plants, which we cannot build in time.
    The second method needs either seeding the stratosphere with particulate matter (« living under a white sky »), or placing a sun shield at the sun- earth L1 point. This was studied previously (wikipedia is your friend), and the most realistic proposal is to send trillions of small (1m or less), very light, individuals shades at L1, to diffract 1-2% of the solar input to earth. The authors proposed that sending every week 100 tons to L1 during 10 to 20 years would be enough…
    By an incredible coincidence, humanity will dispose of at least one launch system able to do just that by 2030 …
    I am not sure Elon Musk considers Mars as the main purpose of starship.

  23. Let me share with you a «vision » I had.
    First, paleoclimatology seems to indicate that Earth climate has only two stable states : icehouse (NOT snowball earth), with a mean temperature of 11 to 15 Celsius, and hothouse, with global temperatures between 18 and 24 Celsius. We are currently approximately at 14 degrees. These two states act as « attractors » and everything in between is unstable. Hothouse states were by far the most frequent during the past 500 million years. Transitions between the two states can be fast, probably around 1000 years, and cannot stop by themselves once the transition is engaged. There are some « good » articles presenting this hypothesis (I am just a French MD PhD, but I can estimate the seriousness of a publication in domains other than mine…).
    I think I that in 10 to 15 years it will become apparent, even to the most sceptic individuals, that earth has started its transition process to hothouse state, at a greatly accelerated speed, due to greenhouse gases of human origin. Thus, reducing or shopping CO2, methane, etc production will NOT stop the process (think of runaway permafrost melting, for an example). A warming of 0.5 to 1 Celsius per decade is something I would not be surprised of.
    So, around 2030-2035, there will be only 2 ways of slowing the transition to something we could adapt to : large scale removing of CO2 from atmosphere, or lowering solar insolation globally.

  24. You are in denial. Get over it! O'Neill has already started on ISS. The experiments that are NOT Mars related are pure micr0g O'Neill. You surface people have lost! The astronauts are not excited about returning to a planet where they cannot do the work they are so excited about. Game over.

  25. Let it go already. ONeill isn't going to happen now. The same way this Starship decision wasn't going to happen before they 1) were only 1 decision step away from it and 2) had almost no choice but to concede it.

    Just like a Spaceship decision like today wasn't going to happen back when FalconHeavy was just about to havr its first flight.

  26. An inflatable with regolith piled over it is just as functional as a structure printed from regolith. Just patch the leaks, and keep it inflated.

  27. At first, certainly. In the longer term, orbital tugs, tethers, and laser momentum transfer will take over, after LEO is achieved, if not sooner.

  28. Probably two star ships would be better. One built like a huge thermos bottle, with the machinery to keep methane, and O2 cold and liquid. Another with an ice jacket and life support for people to occupy. Of course, neither one needs a heat shield, flaps, or sea level raptors.

  29. I would modify the lunar gateway Starship a bit to make it more suited to transferring fuel, cargo, and people. Retractable fuel booms would be a great start.

  30. I compare the Starship to the HMS Dreadnought. It obsoleted every competitor that came before.
    From now on, other rocket companies will have to make reusable rockets at scale or go out of business. Deservedly so.

  31. Once Starship becomes operational. Who's going to compete with SpaceX in that level? I always had a feeling Starship will become the de-facto standard in launching stuff to orbit, Moon, and Mars.

    Which means SpaceX in the coming years or decades will be akin to Standard Oil in the space industry.

    Will that mean SpaceX in the future will face antitrust lawsuits for monopolizing the space industry and the public or regulators are calling for a break up of SpaceX, by the time that happens.

  32. The announcement event for single SpaceX HLS was about as weird a thing as I've ever seen. Everything is up in the air right now. The ISS astronauts are focused on helping Earth, with micr0g experiments and ISMRU development. Stuff you cannot do on Moon or Mars. Next step is HALO orbit, but much more than Gateway hardware now planned. A Mars O'Neill Module, MOM, is needed. Then, we can visit Moon and Mars surfaces as desired for science and tourism. Why do expanding technological civilization stuff on surface, it is the wrong place.

  33. Why is the last paragraph about inflatables and 3D printing as though it’s a conclusion to a piece about Starship and SLS?

  34. SLS funding has nothing to do with funding moon colonization. You can advocate to end SLS funding for whatever reason, more work for SpaceX etc, but NASA funding moon colonization is a bridge too far.

    You can advocating ending programs thinking it will get you funding for your preferred recipient, but dont be too surprised if it gets you even less space activity.

    "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"

    There is a very real possibility Starship could be like the cautionary tale that is FH.
    Creating new markets is fraught with dangers.

  35. Seems to me the current Starship HLS choice with Gateway and Orion is the biggest compromise the powers that be will accept.

    It's that or no project at all.

    I know SLS has few fans around here and many would like to see Artemis dead, but it's not actually useless IMO. All the life support systems for Mars Starship can be improved a lot using NASA's experience keeping people alive in space, which is considerable.

    There's people at NASA who know their stuff, not just meddling bureaucrats.

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