How SpaceX is prospering in the year of the coronavirus pandemic
SpaceX’s Elon Musk must count himself lucky that commercial space is considered an “essential industry” while the coronavirus pandemic ravages the world. The designation has allowed SpaceX to not only survive but to prosper as the company continues its efforts to open the space frontier, both in partnership with NASA and alone.
NASA SpaceFlight notes SpaceX recently rolled out the SN3 test article of the planned Starship rocket for both ground and flight testing. The plan was to test the cryogenic fuel tank to ensure it can handle the pressure needed for flight operations. SpaceX planned to follow that test with engine firings and then a hop test of about 150 meters. However, the SN3 suffered a catastrophic failure at the end of the cryogenic test.
As of this writing, SpaceX is already building SN4. It will likely attempt to do the tanking and then the 150-meter hop test with this prototype, using lessons learned from the previous test articles. These tests, if successful, will lead to more ambitious hops, up to 20 kilometers high, for the SN4 test article. Musk hopes to send a Starship to low Earth orbit before the end of the year, though that milestone is likely to slip to 2021.
The test campaign taking place in Boca Chica, Fla., represents SpaceX’s philosophy of test a little, build a little, learn a lot. The approach was devised by the late Admiral Wayne Meyer, who applied it to the Aegis missile system. Using this method, each system of the Starship would be tested and retested until it is perfected before proceeding to the next system. Once SpaceX can load and unload cryogenic fuel without destroying the fuel tank, it will move on to static firing of its engines and then the flight tests of increasing altitude and duration.
SpaceX is not letting failure slow it down. The company’s approach, as some on Twitter have suggested, has been, “Move fast. Blow stuff up.” In that way Musk intends to create a spaceship that will take humans to the moon, Mars and beyond.
In the meantime, the first flight test of the Crew Dragon with astronauts on board is still a go for between mid and late May. The test will certify the SpaceX spaceship to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The United States will finally be free of dependence on Russia to fly its astronauts into space.
SpaceX will develop the first private space line, which will eventually expand from just servicing the ISS to taking private citizens into low Earth orbit. The capability will foster space tourism and commercial space stations.
Looking ahead, NASA recently announced that SpaceX has been contracted to deliver cargo to the Lunar Gateway, the space station planned to be deployed in lunar orbit to support operations on the moon’s surface. The company would provide a new version of its workhorse spaceship, dubbed the Dragon XL. The new lunar Dragon would not be reusable, at least in its initial form, but would provide extra volume for the Lunar Gateway once it delivers its cargo.
Eric Berger at Ars Technica is undoubtedly correct that the contract sends two political signals to Congress.
First, the contract reaffirms NASA’s commitment to building the Lunar Gateway. Recently, the space agency determined that in order to accomplish the goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024, the Gateway had to be taken out of the critical path, meaning that it would be built and used after the first moon landing or two.
Second, the SpaceX contract demonstrates the space agency’s pledge to include commercial space in the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon. Space policy observers had raised some doubts when a plan surfaced that would rely on the Space Launch System to deliver both the Orion spacecraft with the astronauts and the lunar lander to the moon’s orbit. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine denied that was the plan under consideration, however.
Elon Musk is determined neither the coronavirus nor anything else will stop him from making humankind a space-faring species. He will accomplish the vision in partnership with NASA, led by the visionary Bridenstine and himself as necessary. It is by such determination that we shall defeat the virus and then go forth to the stars.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.