The prowess of SpaceX and Starship scares NASA

A fully reusable spacecraft capable of ensuring a regular connection between the Moon and Earth and of transporting a crew and a cargo of more than 100 tons thereto. In a few years, assures Elon Musk, such a machine will no longer be a fantasy, but a reality.

The Starship spacecraft from its company SpaceX should make its first orbital flight before the end of 2022, before taking the path of the Earth-based satellite and then, finally, heading for Mars. NASA has a similar program, called the Space Launch System (SLS) and intended to propel a crew to the Moon aboard the Orion spacecraft.

This program, called Artemis, is responsible for preparing the first manned mission of the US space agency to the planet Mars. Alas, the first launch of the SLS has already been delayed, and each of its flights is estimated to cost $2 billion (€1.76 billion) – an amount likely too high for NASA alone to ensure a permanent presence on the Moon .

Not only is SpaceX ahead, but the company promises that its ships will be cheaper and quickly reusable. This would allow for more round trips and economies of scale, while Artemis schedules flights at least two years apart. NASA therefore seems doubly overwhelmed, both behind on its own schedule and on the technology it has chosen.

Nervous NASA

“Once the reliability of the system is demonstrated with numerous flights, which may take only a few months, it will render all existing launch vehicles obsolete.explains Politico’s Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer. If SLS only flies once every two years, it simply won’t be a major player in future space travel.”

The US space agency is therefore very concerned about the progress of its private competitor. Or, to use the harsher words used to Politico by a Washington lobbyist who works in the sector, “they screw it up”.

But while Musk certainly has a knack for thwarting pessimistic predictions, he also has a long history of bombastic broken promises. Whether it’s Tesla’s Autopilot or its underground Loop, the billionaire seems particularly fond of unsustainable schedules. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Starship can be respected.

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