Elon’s Excellent Explosion - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Elon’s Excellent Explosion
SpaceX Starship begins to explode after launch last Thursday (Wall Street Journal/YouTube)

We’ve all become accustomed to the calming — almost soporific — euphemisms that arrived with space exploration back in the 1960s. The euphemisms went along with the smiling, stoic bravery of the astronauts.

Everything was “nominal,” until it wasn’t. At about 200,000 miles from Earth, when the “master alarm” light went on, Apollo 13’s Jack Swigert radioed, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” which, roughly translated, meant: “We’re all gonna die unless this flying brick is fixed quickly.”

A new euphemism for a malfunction was invented on Thursday when the SpaceX “Starship” heavy-lift rocket suffered, as the company announced, a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” a few minutes after it was launched. In other words, the rocket blew up. Aside from a bunch of egos that suffered extensive damage, no one was hurt.

We have become used to success in space, but failure isn’t uncommon and is usually fatal. In 1967, the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire on the launch pad, killing three astronauts. In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded after launch, killing all seven astronauts aboard. In 2003, the Columbia space shuttle exploded on reentry, with the same result.

Musk’s politics are all over the place, but his media and political backing are nevertheless enormously important.

The point is that the programs went on. Elon Musk, who must be the most media- and politically savvy billionaire, won’t stop his space company’s development of rockets to ride because of Thursday’s accident. Nor should he because, in the big leagues of weapon system and space vehicle development, you can learn a lot more from a failure than you can from a success.

Musk’s SpaceX is, like its owner, perfectly attuned to the “OPM” method of doing business. When you can use other people’s money to gain wealth, it’s easy to limit your risk and maximize your return. Musk has ridden the climate change nonsense with his Tesla company, which depended on federal subsidies to sell cars and, to an extent, still does.

In about 2002, Musk established SpaceX to launch satellites and manned missions to space. He wants to go to the moon, and the Thursday failure of the “Starship” rocket was supposed to prove its capability for the moon mission.

SpaceX brought competition to the launch business, which had been lacking for years. A combination of Lockheed and Boeing — called United Launch Alliance — was formed because there were no means for the Defense Department and the CIA (and other alphabet agencies) to regularly launch their “national security” payloads. Those payloads are, of course, spy satellites and such.

(Full disclosure: I was a consultant for ULA for a while a dozen years ago.)

The problem that the DOD and CIA had was solved by ULA. It provided the steady flow of launches, usually between six and 10 a year, and had a 100 percent success rate. Every satellite it launched got into the right orbit pretty much on schedule.

Enter SpaceX. Musk knew that the market for launching commercial satellites was uncertain, so he targeted — with lobbying and personal political pressure — the national security payloads. But his rockets had no track record. I remember an Air Force chief of staff turning down SpaceX. He said words to the effect of: “I’m not putting the crown jewels on top of an unproven rocket.”

The “crown jewels” are those national-security payloads, which routinely cost more than $1 billion each. They take a year or more to build, which means they have to go into the planned orbit on time or defense or intelligence capabilities are lost.

After a few years, SpaceX tried to launch a national security payload. It wasn’t inserted into the right orbit and came crashing down to Earth in a few days. The crash wasn’t as spectacular as Thursday’s failed launch, but it was probably just as costly.

Fortunately, there is competition for SpaceX. NASA, working with Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop Grumman (ULA is no more), launched the heavy-lift Artemis mission spacecraft called “Orion” in November after weeks of delay. It was carried into space by the “Space Launch System” that NASA has been working on for years. The heavy-lift rocket is just that, eclipsing the 1960s Saturn V, which, before Artemis, produced the world’s greatest rocket thrust and the loudest man-made sound other than the atomic bomb.

Artemis didn’t blow up when it was launched on Nov. 16. It looped around the moon successfully at a distance of about 81 miles and then — on Dec. 11 — splashed down on Earth.

So, the race is on between NASA’s SLS and SpaceX’s Starship. Politics will, as always, play a big role in which is developed faster to win the next manned moon mission. Both are funded primarily by NASA. In August, SpaceX received a new contract with NASA for five more manned missions worth about $1.4 billion.

The question is whether the SLS group or SpaceX learns more from its past launch.

How they learn is fascinating. Every part of every rocket and spacecraft is monitored to some degree. When a part or subsystem fails, there is usually an opportunity to learn why it did. Then the lessons of the failed launch can be learned.

Musk’s politics are all over the place, but his media and political backing are nevertheless enormously important.

Musk has said he wants to try another Starship launch in just a few months, but he may have to wait longer than that. The next SLS-Artemis mission is scheduled for launch in November 2024.

It’s a safe bet that the next SLS-Artemis mission will succeed far more than the next SpaceX-Starship mission. But, because of Musk’s political skills, politics will prove a more important judge of both missions than facts. If Biden wins reelection, SpaceX will probably carry our astronauts to the moon.


Space Tourism Is No Waste

As SpaceX Rockets Become Routine, Their Payloads Get All the Glory

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, http://spectator.org. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!