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NSRC 2023

 
Starship test
A unique perspective on a SpaceX Starship static fire test last week in Boca Chica, Texas. While those tests continue, it’s not clear when SpaceX will finally be ready for its first orbital launch attempt. (credit: SpaceX)

Starship, Twitter, and Musk


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By most accounts, 2022 has been an incredibly successful year for SpaceX. It has performed 59 launches so far in the year, nearly double the number it conducted last year, with one or two more launches planned before the end of the year. Those launches have ranged from commercial communications satellites to NASA science missions, from a private astronaut mission to the International Space station to a commercial Japanese lunar lander. More than a quarter of all Falcon 9 launches, dating back to the vehicle’s introduction in 2010, took place this year.

That high launch cadence, coupled with the removal of Russian vehicles from the market and delays in the introduction of new vehicles, has made the Falcon 9 the default, and sometimes only, option for companies and organizations, including those that might not otherwise work with SpaceX.

“‘Is the Starship meeting each of the benchmarks, the time schedules?’ And the answer comes back to me yes, and in some cases exceeding,” Nelson said.

When OneWeb terminated its Soyuz launch contract after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it soon bought three launches from SpaceX, the first of which placed 40 OneWeb satellites into orbit earlier this month. In August, Northrop Grumman said it would launch three Cygnus cargo missions to the ISS on Falcon 9 rockets while it works with Firefly Aerospace on a new version of Antares that does away with its Ukrainian first stage and Russian engines. Two months later, the European Space Agency said it would launch two missions on Falcon 9 rockets because of the loss of Soyuz and delays in the Ariane 6—and left the door open for buying more depending on the status of the Ariane 6 and needs to launch new Galileo navigation satellites.

SpaceX’s biggest customer for the Falcon 9, though, has been itself. More than half of its launches this year have carried Starlink satellites, with more than 3,600 satellites launched to date, of which more than 3,000 are in operational orbits. Starlink has attracted one million subscribers in an ever-growing number of countries and became essential in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion (despite disputes between SpaceX and the Pentagon about who should pay for providing services there.) Early this month, the FCC gave SpaceX approval for partial deployment of its second-generation Starlink constellation, allowing the company to launch 7,500 of a proposed nearly 30,000 Gen2 satellites.

If there’s one area where SpaceX has fallen short, though, it’s with Starship. A little more than a year ago, over the Thanksgiving holiday, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk called for all hands on deck to deal with what he called a “production crisis” with the Raptor engines that will power Starship. Getting Starship flying, he said, was essential to deploying that Gen2 constellation that offers much better economics.

“What it comes down to is that we face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” he wrote in that email.

The Raptor production problem appears to be solved: the company hit its goal of producing seven Raptor engines a week earlier this year, said Mark Kirasich, at the time deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, during an advisory committee meeting at the end of October. (Kirasich retired from the agency last month.)

However, Starship has not achieved a flight rate of at least once every two weeks. It has not achieved a flight rate at all, with its first orbital launch attempt still yet to take place. At that late October meeting, Kirasich said the company appeared to be on track to conduct that launch in early December, but that date, like so many other estimates in the past, has come and gone without a launch (see “In the shadows of lunar landers”, The Space Review, November 7, 2022.)

SpaceX has offered little insight into the status of Starship development as it shuffles Starship vehicles and their Super Heavy boosters to and from launch pads at its Boca Chica, Texas, facility for various tests. The company has yet to perform some tests expected before an orbital flight, like a static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster. The company also lacks an FAA launch license.

While Starship may be critical for Starlink Gen2, it is essential for NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon. With the success of Artemis 1 this month (see “All’s well that finally begins well”, The Space Review, December 12, 2022), Starship is one of two major elements yet to be tested before landing humans on the Moon on Artemis 3 in the mid-2020s, the other being spacesuits under development by Axiom Space.

In mid-November, NASA exercised a $1.15 billion option in SpaceX’s award to develop a revised version of the Starship lander for later “sustainable” Artemis missions, demonstrating it on the Artemis 4 mission. That option brings the total value of SpaceX’s Human Landing System award to more than $4 billion.

If NASA is concerned about the pace of development of Starship, they are not letting on publicly. Asked about the status of Starship at a briefing December 11 after the splashdown that concluded Artemis 1, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said he regularly checks in with Jim Free, associate administrator for exploration systems development, on the vehicle’s progress.

“I ask the question all the time of Jim Free, ‘Is the Starship meeting each of the benchmarks, the time schedules?’ And the answer comes back to me yes, and in some cases exceeding,” Nelson said.

“They’re ready to go test,” Melroy said of SpaceX’s Starship work. “They’re beyond the ‘we’re probably going to blow up the pad’ phase.”

“You know, you’re developing a new vehicle, a new rocket, and you can expect some delays, but thus far I’m told that they are on schedule,” he said. That schedule, he added, calls for an uncrewed lunar landing mission in late 2023 followed by Artemis 3 in late 2024. That schedule, particularly a lunar landing within a year, might be best described as “aspirational” given the lack of a single orbital launch to date.

Speaking at a Secure World Foundation event in Washington the next day, NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said she had visited Boca Chica a few weeks ago. “They are in a hardware-rich environment,” she said. “They are ready to test. They do have some things they have to finish before they can test.”

She suggested that some of the delays might be linked to launch site issues, drawing upon her experience in a previous role as deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA. “I’ve known since I was at FAA how hard it is to develop a new location to launch rockets from,” she said. “It’s very challenging to set up a new location, and I think they’re just experiencing some of those things.”

“They’re ready to go test and I think they’ve got the design ready to go do some serious hardware testing,” she concluded. “They’re beyond the ‘we’re probably going to blow up the pad’ phase.”

The driving force behind Starship has always been Musk. He has been the one who has discussed its development in presentations from Guadalajara to Adelaide to Boca Chica, delving into technical details about its evolving design and nomenclature (remember when it was called BFR?) He was also deeply involved in its development, including lengthy visits to Boca Chica.

Or, at least, was deeply involved in its development. In recent months, Musk’s attention has been primarily—almost entirely—focused on his latest acquisition, the social media company Twitter. Since the $44 billion deal closed in October, Musk has spent his time and energy revamping the company. Thousands of employees either quit or were laid off as Musk and his new leadership team change policies, only to undo some of those changes days or even hours later. The result is a chaotic environment that raises questions about the company’s long-term prospects.

That attention to Twitter comes at the expense of both SpaceX and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, which Musk also runs. At the very least, he is distracted, which one person summarized in a meme of a parent (Musk) lavishing attention on one child in a swimming pool (Twitter) while another child (Tesla) struggles to stay afloat. Below them is a skeleton sitting in a chair at the bottom of the ocean: “Mars Mission.”

“Mars plans are still moving forward,” Musk tweeted in response. But he’s said little else about SpaceX activities in the last two months beyond retweeting some SpaceX announcements of launches, praising the company over the weekend for completing three launches within 36 hours. He has also been absent from Boca Chica since before the Twitter acquisition closed, based on flight tracking data from an account that, last week, was banned from Twitter after the company hastily enacted a rule against real-time tracking on the service.

“It makes me a little nervous,” Garver said of Musk’s focus on Twitter. “He’s very leveraged.”

Those concerns go beyond a lack of attention to SpaceX. A failure of Twitter, like bankruptcy, could have financial repercussions for Musk and, in turn, SpaceX, just as SpaceX seeks to ramp up both Starship and Starlink, two programs that require significant capital.

“It makes me a little nervous,” said former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver at a SpaceNews panel discussion earlier this month, when asked about concerns Musk may be too distracted by Twitter. “He is absolutely a hands-on CEO. I’ve had lots of friends who’ve worked there tell me how much detail gets into after accidents, and I think that’s positive.”

She said she hoped Twitter wouldn’t collapse “because I would like him to keep his wealth and his ability to support the space program,” which she feared would be jeopardized if Twitter went bankrupt. “He’s very leveraged.”

Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking at the same event, was more positive, noting that SpaceX is run on a day-to-day basis by Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “Obviously, there’s a lot of media hoopla about it, but I don’t see that this is going to affect their ability to continue to operate and do good things on behalf of the United States.”

Musk, though, may be trying the patience of the space industry and NASA. On the weekend Orion returned to Earth to conclude the Artemis 1 mission, many congratulated NASA on a successful test of Orion and the Space Launch System. Musk, whose Starship is essential for later Artemis missions, was instead tweeting comments such as “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” a reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the retiring director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that also appeared to mock the use of preferred pronouns.

That particular tweet came up during the post-splashdown press conference. Ken Chang, a New York Times reporter, mentioned that tweet and asked if there was anything Musk could say that would cause NASA to question SpaceX’s ability to carry out its Starship lunar lander contract. The NASA officials participating in the briefing said they couldn’t understand the question because of interference on the line, and moved on. (There was some interference on the phone line, akin to a bad cellphone connection, but other reporters on the phone line and in the room at the Johnson Space Center could make out the question.)

After the briefing, another reporter who attended the briefing at JSC approached Nelson to ask the question again. Nelson responded that he met recently with Shotwell in Washington, where he asked her if Twitter would be a distraction to SpaceX. “And she said to me in no uncertain terms, ‘I assure you it is not,’” Nelson said. That was enough to assure him that SpaceX was in good hands despite the ongoing drama at Twitter.

That drama has become only more intense since that exchange, including suspending accounts like the one that tracked Musk’s private jet, followed by suspending, but later reinstituting, accounts of several journalists who reported on it. By Sunday, Twitter was banning promotion of, or even links to, other social networks on the service, only to rescind that ban hours later, all while Musk was in Qatar for the World Cup Final.

By late Sunday, Musk posted a tweet with a poll: should he step down as head of Twitter? “I will abide by the results of this poll,” he wrote. Early Monday, the poll closed, with 17.5 million accounts voting, 57.5% in favor of him stepping down. As of late Monday, Musk had not commented on the poll results, including whether he would abide by the result and, if so, when he would resign as CEO. If he does, Starship will be waiting.


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