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Starship
A SpaceX Starship prototype at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site before a recent test flight. (credit: SpaceX)

Putting SpaceX’s Starship program in the proper context


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Where does the SpaceX Starship vehicle fit, anyway? It came out of nowhere, in response to no government RFP or recognized industry-wide need. There is no established market for its capabilities and apparently is being constructed for much the same reasons that people build little airplanes in their garage. It has been created based on the vision of one man. But perhaps the real question is, “Where should the Starship fit in the launch industry?”

The swinging ’60s draw to a close

By 1969 three things had become obvious.

One: Space was no longer just an area for scientific research or just for the world’s superpowers to demonstrate their technological prowess through spectacular stunts. Satellites had become very useful “utilities” in areas such as military reconnaissance, weather forecasting, communications, and navigation. The utilization of space had become vital to multiple national interests and that situation clearly would become even more important in the future.

Two: The converted ballistic missiles that enabled the exploitation of space were not going to be able to hack it much longer. The launch vehicles of the time suffered from poor reliability, high costs, and cumbersome operations. Considerable advancements over the previous decade aside, buried in their missile DNA were serious limitations related to the technology employed and the original roles the vehicles were intended to fill.

Starship came out of nowhere, in response to no government RFP or recognized industry-wide need. There is no established market for its capabilities and apparently is being constructed for much the same reasons that people build little airplanes in their garage.

Three: The only real US government justification for human spaceflight was about to disappear. President Kennedy had issued his challenge to place a man on the Moon and safely return him to Earth even before the first American flew in Earth orbit and that was where the country’s crewed space efforts had always been focused. With the achievement of the Moon landing goal in sight, and the Soviets far behind, the legacy of the Apollo Program was going to be “Mission Accomplished” and that was that. The decision to abandon the follow-on to the Saturn V, the Nova booster, and the two new Kennedy Space Center launch pads at LC-39C and LC-39D meant that expanded human missions to the Moon and to Mars would require an enormous new and costly effort. There was nowhere left to go that could be reached at a cost that the US government would be willing to bear or in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, the Air Force was already finding out that automated systems in orbit could do the job far better and much cheaper than their Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

NASA devised a solution to this dilemma: the Space Shuttle program. The robotic missions needed no special justification and by making all of those launches reliant on the human spaceflight program, people would have little choice but to support crewed launches as well. Most other major upgrades to the fleet of expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) were cancelled, except as needed to interface with the transition to the Space Shuttle. New engine production for the Atlas and Delta boosters was stopped; they would rely on surplus ballistic missile engines and those left over from the Saturn I program. At least 26 Atlas ICBMs were scrapped, run over with bulldozers or otherwise disposed of. The Titan 34D would be the only ELV built to enable a few critical military payloads to be “backed up” in the event of a delay in the shuttle schedule. The Air Force plans for the development of new simpler and lower cost ELVs were abandoned.

Things were moving along nicely in 1977, at which time NASA was making certain decisions as to how to handle safety challenges associated with processing the shuttle in the Vehicle Assembly Building. NASA also announced that the shuttle would cost $14 million per launch to operate, would receive at least $18 million on each mission in fees from launch customers—in some cases twice that amount—and would be able to fly 50 missions a year. This was not only going to be a replacement for all ELVs but a real money-making operation as well as a crewed space program, although one limited to low Earth orbit.

Reality intruded when the shuttle started flying and the costs proved to be a great deal higher, due in no small part to the fact that the shuttle never flew more than nine missions in a year, and in most years less than even that. When Challenger was lost on January 28, 1986, it became obvious to all that the shuttle would be absent in the short term and unsuitable in the long term.

The only immediate answer was to return to producing the same ELVs that had been found to be inadequate 20 years before but now with upgrades, mostly for the higher performance required to replace the shuttle. But NASA and the Air Force once again were faced with the same problem they had recognized in the late ’60s. The answer back then had been the Space Shuttle, and if not it any longer, what?

Any program that has issued its own coffee cup…

The obvious answer was for NASA and the Air Force, both faced with the same problem, to create a joint program to meet their requirements. Surely such an approach would be a lot cheaper than individual programs. And besides, as the old saying in DC goes, “Any program that has issued a coffee cup is impossible to cancel.” A combined program would get more coffee cups spread around.

Another serious obstacle was that involving both DoD and NASA meant that the number of Congressional committees that had to pass judgment and make tweaks was doubled. And those two different sets of four committees each viewed each other with great suspicion and no small hostility.

And aside from the “obvious” need for a joint program it would pretty much have to use an approach that was much favored in the late 1980s: teaming. In addition to offering better coffee cup distribution, it addressed one of the most challenging problems in acquisition, that of making as many contractors and congressmen happy as possible. And since the objective of the new program was the same as that of the Space Shuttle; to put everyone else out of business, it was an especially essential feature.

The new program, called at various times the Advanced Launch System (ALS) or the National Launch System (NLS), featured a new liquid rocket engine that would be designed and developed by a team of rocket engine manufacturers: Rocketdyne, Aerojet, and Pratt and Whitney. It envisioned a Common Booster Core that could be launched individually, or with two strapped together, or with three strapped together, Titan IV style.

The first problem the program ran into was that, like the shuttle, combining NASA and DoD requirements was not easy. Astronauts have enormous influence at NASA and the agency insisted that the new booster program include a new crewed vehicle. Mind you, the program had to not merely accommodate a crewed vehicle to be developed by a different program, but include it in the new booster program.

And the Air Force, where pilots have even more influence than do astronauts at NASA, also added in a major requirement. The new launch system had to be operated by personnel with the same skill level as for airplanes and ICBMs, rather than “rocket scientists.” Admittedly, this requirement was never taken very seriously, because even at the four-star general level no real reason for it could be articulated.

But ALS and NLS had much larger enemies than bureaucratic incompetence. Congress was none too enamored with it and at one point even suggested that, given the inability to come up with a viable new booster program, the DoD should consider buying launches from Arianespace. Another serious obstacle was that involving both DoD and NASA meant that the number of Congressional committees that had to pass judgment and make tweaks was doubled. And those two different sets of four committees each viewed each other with great suspicion and no small hostility; who were these other guys wanting to spend some of “their” money? However, Congress was even less enamored of the Air Force’s very costly Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program, which yielded the F-22. Twice Congress paired back the ATF program and twice the Air Force offered up ALS/NLS as a sacrifice. After the second time that was that; any really new advanced Air Force booster development was dead.

A new hope

Most people had little expectation for any changes to the space launch status quo when the Clinton Administration came into power. When asked about putting things into orbit, the new presidential science advisor even was quoted as saying that the entire Planet Earth was already in orbit, so what was the point? And there was a collective yawn when the administration announced a new study into the subject. After all, 27 studies affecting the space launch business were either already underway or had been recently concluded. But in fact, the new study, led by Air Force Gen. Thomas Moorman, yielded major developments.

It had become painfully obvious that combining NASA and DoD requirements was just too challenging and probably just plain old stupid. Allowing the two different agencies to proceed on their own separately appeared to offer some possibilities, and a new factor arose: reusability.

The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) had expressed an early interest in improving space launch capabilities, probably because no one else was doing anything that looked to be actually useful toward that end. One result was the Delta Clipper program, a limited attempt to prove that a launch vehicle could lift off, translate horizontally, and then land vertically. The Delta Clipper would have no actual launch capability and would offer performance less than that of a typical Cessna. But it would demonstrate whether such takeoffs and landings were feasible, and that could lead to a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle capable of revolutionizing space launch capabilities. One of the more important findings was that such a vehicle would not only need a flame bucket in order to lift off but would also require an even larger flame bucket in order to survive even a normal landing.

It had become painfully obvious that combining NASA and DoD requirements was just too challenging and probably just plain old stupid.

After the SDIO Delta Clipper program was concluded the program was transferred to NASA, which got one successful flight out of the vehicle before crashing it due to human error. Despite its tragic end, Delta Clipper was widely viewed as a successful low-cost program and that led some in the launch industry to claim that further development of ELVs was pointless. As a result, the Moorman study recommended that the Air Force develop a new ELV that would be “evolutionary” or, in other words, dependent on existing technology rather than advancements in basic R&D as ALS and NLS had planned to achieve. Meanwhile, NASA would pursue a new reusable launch vehicle.

The Air Force program, dubbed Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), got underway in 1994. The original intention was to conduct a competition and downselect to one ELV that would meet all Air Force medium and heavy launch requirements; everyone else could just go out of business. Frankly, the Air Force was tired of supporting 11 launch pads and three booster factories that everyone else got to use for free.

As things developed, the then-burgeoning commercial satellite industry and Boeing’s and Lockheed Martin’s determination to press on regardless of who “won” the EELV contract led to the Air Force decision to select both the Lockheed Martin Atlas V and the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Delta IV for further development and production. Both boosters proved to be highly successful. The first Atlas V flew in August 2002 and the first Delta IV launched in November 2002. Ironically, given the program’s military focus, the first launch in each case was for a commercial payload. Since then, there have been a total of only two mission failures for Atlas V or Delta IV launches, a truly remarkable record. While NASA had indicated it had no interest in the EELV program and refused to provide inputs on its requirements to the Air Force, the agency came to use the vehicles as well.

The empire strikes out

As a result of the Moorman study recommendations, NASA created the X-33 program, intended to develop a subscale proof of concept for a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that would then be developed into an operational system by private industry. A key factor was that NASA specified the same performance requirements as for the Space Shuttle. Clearly, NASA looked upon the program as, “Do the Space Shuttle over and this time get it right.” Three companies proposed X-33 designs: Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin won the contract and its X-33 vehicle was intended to lead to the full scale Venturestar RLV.

The same challenge that had arisen in NLS/ALS also dogged the new RLV. It had to handle crewed flight. Most Venturestar missions would take about 90 minutes from liftoff to landing back at the launch site. But to support the International Space Station, the vehicle would have to maneuver and dock, probably spending a week or so in orbit each time. In addition, early on it was pointed out that the astronauts would not tolerate merely sitting in the back waiting for the seat belt light to go out as a computer flew the ship; they would want to drive. Finally, this problem was more or less settled by planning on a separate external cargo pod, with a crewed version that the astronauts could guide to the ISS.

The reason they’ve had so many failures of the Starship prototypes is that it represents nearly a half-century of development compressed into a short period of time.

But by the late 1990s, after over a billion dollars worth of public and private funds had been expended, the conclusion was that Venturestar would not work. The new composite propellant tank failed in testing and without it the vehicle was not viable. The program was cancelled in 2001.

The SpaceX Starship: Forward to the past?

Where does the SpaceX starship fit in all this? Well, the initial inclination of NASA back in the late ’60s was to develop a crewed reusable spacecraft that could be launched on ELVs. That approach was abandoned early on when they saw an opportunity to sew up the entire launch market and thereby make human spaceflight bulletproof, providing a permanent self-justification. They continued that same shuttle-style approach for the X-33.

So, while some may see the SpaceX Starship as merely producing a string of explosive pratfalls, in reality SpaceX is doing what NASA should have been doing for at least the last 30 years, and probably the last 50 years: developing a crewed reusable spacecraft designed for real human space exploration and exploitation in an uncompromising manner.

Already, the Starship is far beyond anything previously accomplished in its area. It is not a very limited subscale-of-a-subscale test vehicle along the lines of the Delta Clipper. It is not a subscale prototype like the cancelled X-33; it is a full-scale prototype and has actually flown multiple times, using an entirely new propulsion system. The reason they’ve had so many failures of the Starship prototypes is that it represents nearly a half-century of development compressed into a short period of time.

And the Starship is actually designed for true human space exploration, not for endlessly repeating the Gemini program with a minivan rather than a sports car. Good luck to them!


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