SpaceX is building the road to the moon and Mars in Texas
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had an incredible week. It started with the triumphant return of Dragon astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley from the International Space Station. The conclusion of their space mission was a curious combination of the modern and the retro. The Crew Dragon is a state-of-the-art spacecraft, yet it splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico dangling from parachutes just as they did during the Apollo program.
In the meantime, SpaceX scored another success at its growing spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas, when it sent a prototype of its Starship interplanetary craft on a 150-meter hop. The stainless-steel vehicle lifted off and, more importantly, landed without cracking up. Eventually Musk intends to use the Starship, to be launched by the Super Heavy first stage, to take people and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond.
SpaceX closed out the week with another successful launch of satellites for its Starlink constellation.
Imagine living in Texas a few decades from now and suddenly being possessed with the desire to visit the moon. Traditionally, the only way such a dream could become reality would be for you to go through the arduous process of becoming a NASA astronaut and then hoping that Congress would fund a back-to-the-moon program.
If SpaceX’s Elon Musk has his way, a new road will be devised to go to the moon — and Mars and beyond. The scrappy, entrepreneurial space launch company is planning to build an offshore spaceport to launch its Starship spacecraft. The rocket ship would not only fly to far distant destinations in space, but to similar offshore spaceports around the world. Travel to Europe and Asia would be cut from many hours to tens of minutes.
If he has his way, you will be able to travel down to the now-thriving port community of Boca Chica, possibly on a Hyperloop, the mass transit-system inspired by Elon Musk, and book passage on a SpaceX Starship for a vacation on the moon. You might look forward to hiking across the lunar landscape in a spacesuit, like Neil Armstrong so long ago and visiting the Tranquility Base monument and see where he and Buzz Aldrin first trod the moon’s surface.
You might need to take a suborbital hop to Tokyo or Dubai on business and need to be there in time to have dinner with some clients. If Musk’s vision is realized, a few minutes in your seat experiencing the G forces of takeoff and landing, and you’d be making your way halfway across the world, with dinner reservations in hand. You wouldn’t be confined for hours on end in a stuffy cabin with little leg room and bad food to make that journey.
Or maybe you might move to Elon Musk’s Mars settlement. Like the immigrants who boarded a ship to the New World centuries ago, you and your family would embark in a Starship for a new life on a real New World 100 million miles away. The Texas Gulf Coast would be the last sight of Earth that you’d ever see close at hand.
Such a vision would seem to be science fiction. But even before the past week, Musk already accomplished a lot, from the reusable first stage of the Falcon 9 to the Falcon Heavy, capable of flinging huge payloads across the interplanetary vastness. Anyone who wants to wager against SpaceX opening space with what amounts to a galleon with rocket engines may be making a bad bet.
It is fitting that Texas will be the site of the first offshore spaceport. Texas engineers have built large structures in the Gulf of Mexico for decades to extract the oil and gas that have been the lifeblood of civilization. While fossil fuels may be replaced in the fullness of time by renewables, nuclear power and eventually fusion energy, the skills honed to build offshore drilling platforms will be used to construct launch pads that rocket ships will depart from, carrying passengers and cargos beyond the Earth.
A long time ago, people imagined that the 21st century would be a time of space travel and people living on other worlds. So far, the current century has been a time of terrorism, civil strife, political mendacity and a worldwide pandemic that seems to come out of a different kind of science fiction future. Perhaps, thanks to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, working alone and in partnership with NASA, the future of a space frontier, not to mention rocket travel from one point to the other on Earth, will just be a little late in coming.
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.
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