A strong chance exists that, in the next few years, American astronauts will leave low-Earth orbit for the first time in half a century. There is a decent chance that, later this decade, they will return to the moon. A few years after that, they might even reach Mars. NASA is slowly emerging from its lengthy post-Apollo doldrums. A pair of billionaire-backed new entrants in the private sector are making significant technological breakthroughs. Even better, they are driving down costs.
It’s an exciting time for space travel—or it should be. The space industry’s second Golden Age has not captured the public imagination. As the rockets climb toward the heavens, in fact, much of the media and political commentary has been startlingly negative. Oligarchs and their toys! What about world hunger? We need a wealth tax. What about climate change? We need a wealth tax. What about universal health care? Time for a wealth tax!
Apathy, cynicism, bitterness: Why is this the way so many Americans, especially among the progressive elite, react to such stunning feats of imagination, perseverance, and ingenuity? The response suggests a stunted view of the human condition, and it raises an unsettling question: Does the United States still have what it takes to lead the world into space? Do we still have the right stuff?
Rockets are exciting and romantic. The engineers who devise them should be famous, like pop stars or athletes. In its short life, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has achieved prodigies of design and construction to rival those of any collective enterprise in human history. The pyramids helped the pharaohs reach another world. Musk wants to ferry us there on rockets as cheap as airplanes. He hopes to reduce the cost of spaceflight to the point that his company can launch three rockets a day, each carrying a 100-ton payload—all of it directed at Mars. Yet SpaceX is not an especially famous company. It’s not even the most famous Elon Musk company.
The key to making a rocket cheap is reusability. This SpaceX has proven. After it has soared 70 miles into the sky, the booster on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can gently land on a sea barge less than 200 feet wide. Using nitrogen thrusters, it flips in the air. It lights some of its engines, slowing itself enough to avoid frying as it returns to the atmosphere. After that, it enters freefall, using grid fins to keep itself oriented. Then, with seconds to spare, it releases landing legs and performs a “suicide burn,” lighting an engine as it touches down. Even with just that single engine running, the booster’s thrust-to-weight ratio is greater than one, so the light must occur at precisely the right moment. Too late, and the booster slams into the ground; too early, and the descent ceases, the engine has to be shut off—and the booster slams into the ground.
The performance of these convolutions has become almost routine. Falcon 9 is already the most reliable launch vehicle of all time. Its boosters have made more consecutive successful landings than any other rocket has made consecutive successful flights. Engineering marvels though they are, neither Falcon 9 nor its larger cousin, Falcon Heavy, can carry anything like a 100-ton payload yet. Nor is either fully reusable. That is why SpaceX is developing Starship, the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket yet built.
The key to making a rocket big is strong engines. Rockets are propelled by thrust, which their engines create by combusting fuel and oxidizer at high pressure. The pressure comes from ramming the propellants through pumps before they enter the main combustion chamber (the part that spits the giant flame out of an engine’s nozzle). Along with driving the rocket engine, the propellants—mainly one or the other, the fuel or the oxidizer—power a turbine engine that runs the pumps. Simpler rockets expel, and thus waste, the turbine engine’s spent propellant as exhaust. More advanced rockets “preburn” all of one of the propellants in the turbine engine and then channel it back into the main combustion chamber.
Starship’s Raptor engines fully preburn both propellants. This causes them to enter the main combustion chamber as hot gases and mix with almost perfect efficiency. As Musk likes to say, hardly any less energy would be wasted if God himself knitted the molecules together. The Raptor is a full-flow staged-combustion rocket engine. The Soviets never got one out of testing, and NASA long thought the idea undoable. But the Raptor works.
Starship landings will, in theory, be even more dramatic than those of Falcon 9’s boosters. To save weight, neither Starship’s booster nor its spacecraft will have landing legs. Instead, the launch tower will use chopstick-like arms to catch the vessels out of the air. And though the booster will descend normally, the grain silo–shaped spacecraft—even empty, it weighs almost a quarter-million pounds—will belly flop, increasing drag by falling sideways, until, in the last 1,500 feet, it uses large flaps and gimballed engines to right itself.
In a pair of test flights, Starship has launched successfully, rising in the second instance around 90 miles before exploding. The belly flop, too, has been executed. The tower catch has yet to be tried. “This is bananas stuff,” Musk chuckles, adding that it “probably won’t work the first time.” But would you bet against SpaceX figuring it out?
After the space race of the late 1950s and 1960s—spaceflight’s first Golden Age—came the space malaise. NASA put a man on the moon, and then fell into a decades-long funk. To the extent that the space shuttle program ever had a clear purpose, it was to make spaceflight routine. In that regard, the program failed. Its vehicles were poorly designed and its operations overly expensive. It produced the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Its main achievement was to help build the International Space Station—a project whose cost repeatedly rose, even as its scope shrank.
The spirited NASA of the early days—the NASA of Gene Kranz, director of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and his (later-coined) slogan, “Failure is not an option”—gave way to a slow, stiff bureaucracy. Operations fell into vortices of missed deadlines and budget overruns. As of 1998, for instance, the agency aimed to launch what would become known as the James Webb telescope by 2007, on a budget of $1 billion. The launch occurred at the end of 2021, at a total cost of about $10 billion.
At last, NASA seems to be finding a fresh sense of direction. Assisted by its counterparts in Europe, Japan, and Canada, the agency is working to put astronauts into lunar orbit by late 2024 and back on the moon’s surface by the end of 2025. The end goal of this undertaking, called the Artemis program, is to establish a permanent moon base. Late last year, NASA successfully tested its Space Launch System (SLS), the large rocket that will carry astronauts to space in the upcoming journeys.
The agency’s long post-Apollo hangover lingers, however. NASA’s inspector general recently found that the SLS’s development is $6.5 billion over budget and six years behind schedule. NASA remains a lumbering establishment, one that can’t crack the whip when contractors underperform. The agency’s auditors rated the work done on SLS by Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne “very good,” even as the first went $250 million over budget and the second completed less than a third of its assignment.
The inspector general warns that this inability to manage contractors imperils the new moon endeavor. Many contracts for the Artemis program date back more than a decade. They commit NASA to working with legacy aerospace firms under a “cost-plus” price model, whereby those firms receive full payment and a profit, even when their expenses exceed expectations. The inspector general’s report is itself a token of administrative complacency. Written in dense corporate-speak, it describes scandalous waste and inefficiency with zero sense of urgency. The Artemis program is likely to miss its 2024 and 2025 moon deadlines.
But NASA is turning a corner in another respect. SpaceX, led by Musk, and Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, are shaking up how the public and private space sectors interact. “NASA is in the midst of a major transformation,” observes Eric Berger, Ars Technica’s senior space editor, “from telling industry what to build and then paying a steep fiscal price for oversight of those programs, to telling industry what it wants . . . and then getting out of the way and letting businesses innovate.” In fact, the new firms develop capabilities for NASA before NASA knows that it wants them. Many in the aerospace industry scoffed at SpaceX’s plan to create reusable rockets. Now NASA relies on them. In October, for instance, when NASA sent a probe to the asteroid 16 Psyche, it departed on a Falcon Heavy.
Even the Artemis program is starting to benefit from the new commercial players. The Apollo program launched astronauts, command modules, and lunar landers together on the Saturn V rocket. This time around, NASA plans to split things up. On the SLS will ride the humans and a module called Orion. For the first two moon-landing missions, SpaceX will provide the lander, which it will launch on Starship. For the third such mission, Blue Origin will step in and supply those elements. Bidding on the lander jobs was intensely competitive, the contracts are fixed-price rather than cost-plus, and much of the R&D for the rockets—SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn—does not factor into the bill. As a result, NASA is set to spend more on the SLS’s bureaucratic cost overruns than it will spend on the privately provided landers in full.
It is a fact: We’re in a space race.” So concludes Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator. In 2019, China became the first nation to land a rover on the far side of the moon. The following year, it completed the first lunar sample-return mission since 1976. It recently constructed a permanently crewed space station, Tiangong (“Sky Palace”), needing only about two years to do so. “The progress they’ve made has been stunning,” remarks the director of the U.S. Space Force. American officials, including Nelson, worry that China will beat us back to the moon, stake out strategic locations, and claim them as its territory.
The United States remains ahead, for now. But will that last? As private firms, the entities revivifying the space industry must sing for their supper. So far, that has been a strength. Thanks to its innovative rockets, SpaceX now dominates the global launch market and is also reshaping the satellite Internet market through its Starlink service. Blue Origin, though behind—its New Shepard rocket has been grounded for a year following a failed launch, and it has yet to launch Amazon’s Kuiper satellite Internet service—is progressing, too. But it’s unclear whether the money from launches, satellite broadband, and government contracts (and soon, space tourism) will be enough to make these companies profitable.
And that’s not counting the stupendous cost of R&D geared toward further advances. Consider that, whereas the launch market is worth about $6 billion a year, SpaceX will spend about $2 billion this year on Starship development alone. At present, no one in the satellite industry needs a launch vehicle of Starship’s size. SpaceX is gambling that supply will create its own demand—that new businesses, such as space manufacturing and asteroid mining, will emerge as the cost of getting material into orbit drops. Musk’s firm remains a popular spot for venture capital. Bezos, meantime, seems prepared to keep plowing $1 billion of his own money into Blue Origin each year. The long-term viability of this “eccentric billionaire” aerospace business model remains unproven.
A greater problem is red tape. The United States excels not only at science and engineering but also at litigation. After NASA awarded SpaceX the first Artemis lander contracts, Blue Origin sued to unwind the deal, delaying work by seven months. The satellite company Viasat has repeatedly urged the Federal Communications Commission to withhold satellite licenses for Starlink. Above all, environmental groups use the courts to oppose space projects at every turn. The National Environmental Policy Act is the biggest legal threat to American progress in space. The law requires the government and private entities to assess how certain large construction projects will affect the environment. This sounds sensible, until you learn that the production of an environmental-impact statement—the highest standard of NEPA review—delays a project an average of 4.5 years. NEPA review is slow, expensive, and subject to abuse.
SpaceX’s experience is illustrative. A NEPA review conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration delayed Starship testing at SpaceX’s facility in South Texas by more than a year. The FAA used the process to extract multiple concessions, including a pledge by SpaceX to place plaques in the area commemorating the Mexican–American War. Following the first Starship test launch, environmentalists sued to vacate SpaceX’s launch license and require a new environmental-impact statement. Forget going to the moon or Mars: organizations like the Surfrider Foundation complain that launches block access to local beaches.
Starlink is vital to SpaceX’s financial stability—not to mention American foreign policy, given its role in providing broadband to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. Yet here, too, NEPA could upend everything. Advocacy groups have pressed the FCC to halt further expansion of Starlink until an environmental-impact statement has been prepared. It’s unlikely that NEPA even applies in space, and the advocates’ main bugbear—light pollution—is fading away (as it were) as SpaceX closes in on producing satellites invisible to the naked eye. Yet the opposition persists. A challenge brought by the International Dark Sky Association is pending in federal court. Musk has opined that, “worst case,” we will arrive on Mars by 2030. The lawyers beg to differ.
The logistical, financial, and legal challenges of space exploration are surmountable. The ultimate question is whether we truly want to surmount them.
The first sentence on the Artemis program’s website proclaims: “With [the] Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.” Why this headline? Perhaps NASA is name-checking DEI priorities in the hope that it can mollify progressive senators who sneer at SpaceX and Blue Origin, greeting their every advance with calls to tax space-faring billionaires into extinction. Or maybe the agency is traumatized by the controversy over the James Webb telescope. No, not the delays and cost overruns—rather, the trumped-up allegations that Webb, NASA’s administrator during the Apollo years, was homophobic. The question stands: Is identity politics what is spurring us on to the moon, to Mars, and beyond?
The functionaries doing PR at NASA may think so. Musk and Bezos plainly do not. They believe in humanity’s limitless capacity to explore, to build, to thrive. Musk dreams of a million people living on Mars, Bezos of a trillion living in space. Admire these men or disdain them; their aims are grand and noble. Their ambitions transcend the parochial fixations and resentments of politicians and pundits, NIMBYs and naysayers.
“The zombies at the gate have come for the last thing that binds the modern world,” writes Mike Solana in his “Pirate Wires” Substack. They’ve come for “the last piece of reverence in us, the last thing we all agreed was good—our human potential.” He implores us to resist this “spiritual rot,” this standing objection to an “expanding, growing, heroic human civilization.” Why do we go to space? Solana knows: “The question of space is absolutely a fight for the soul of America. I believe in a great America. For me, it’s still the stars.”
Musk has a similar motivation. “The United States is literally a distillation of the human spirit of exploration,” he tells biographer Walter Isaacson. “This is a land of adventurers. To have a base on Mars would be incredibly difficult, and people will probably die along the way, just as happened in the settling of the United States. But it will be incredibly inspiring, and we must have inspiring things in the world.”
Top Photo: Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is revolutionizing the space industry. (TRUNG TRAN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)