- policy recommendations for the current administration -


SpaceX is quickly developing the Super Heavy Starship rocket. If successful, this could be a very important development.

SpaceX's rocket will be composed of two parts:
   1) The lower Super Heavy booster
   2) The upper Starship spacecraft.
The Starship concept is that both parts would launch together, the booster would fly back for reuse and the Starship would make it to orbit. Then, there would be another launch but with a fuel tanker on top in place of the Starship. In orbit, the tanker would dock with the Starship and transfer propellant to the Starship. The tanker would then re-enter and land for refueling. With three to four refueling, the Starship would be completely fueled up and able to go to the Moon or Mars.

With their experience retrieving the Falcon first stages and building the large, Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX is will placed for the expedited development of the Super Heavy Starship. It is clear to observers that SpaceX seems to be in an absolute rush to develop the Starship. They have developed and successfully flown the Starship Hopper twice, and they are currently developing and orbital prototype of the rocket. They are in such a rush that they barely even construct buildings in which to build their vehicle. The sooner that Starship achieves orbit, the sooner that it will demonstrate its superiority to the government's SLS rocket and hence the sooner that a public-private partnership will become possible thereby providing all of the money needed to complete the development of the Starship and move on to operations.

But SpaceX is no stranger to developmental setbacks. There have been many:
   - Loss of three Falcon 1s during launch,
   - In-flight break-up of the upper stage
   - Loss of vehicle and satellite on the launch pad
   - Numerous failed landing attempts.
   - Explosion and loss of their Dragon 2 capsule.
There is no assurance that Starship development will go smoothly.

The significance of the Starship is that, if it works as advertised, it will be far more capable than the government's SLS rocket. Indeed, with that sort of capability, Elon Musk believes that full-on settlement of the Moon and Mars becomes possible. It is hard to over-state the importance of the Starship to humanity's future.

But for the decision-makers in Washington, DC, a successful Starship makes our current NASA human spaceflight policy largely irrelevant. Of what use is the SLS rocket when the Starship could do more at much less cost. Of what use would the Orion capsule be when the Starship could transport 17 times more passengers. The plans for the Gateway, mini-station around the Moon would likely be irrelevant because the Starship could go right past it without needing to stop there. And finally, NASA's plans to partner with industry to develop an lunar lander would likewise make no sense because the Starship would be able to perform that job as well. So, if Starship becomes reality, NASA would face a crisis of relevance. What then should it do?

The decision-makers in Washington, DC seems to be ignoring the potential disruption to their space policy that the Starship represents. Until the Starship demonstrates a level of accomplishment making the SLS irrelevant, it is understandable that the decision-makers would want to continue with the current policy. But, the Space Development Network recommends that policy makers adopt a tipping point criteria. This would mean setting a criteria at which point it becomes clear that the Starship is very likely to make the SLS irrelevant. We recommend that that tipping point be where the Starship upper stage makes it to orbit. This is less than the full objectives that SpaceX has for Starship. But the criteria is specifically that point in which the Starship demonstrates that it will likely exceed the capability of the SLS. That point is not when the Starship re-enters and successfully lands because the SLS will never even attempt that.

Rather, the eventual, successful recovery of the Super Heavy booster can be presumed. That means that the Super Heavy Starship system will be vastly less expensive than the SLS. What then remains would be for the Starship to successfully achieve orbit with a performance indicative that it is roughly competitive with the SLS Block 2 capability. This may require demonstrating the launch, successful docking, and transfer of propellant. Since America hasn't had a docking failure in over 40 years, it can be presumed that docking will be mastered. NASA has demonstrated propellant transfer so this can also be presumed will be mastered. So, the tipping point should be limited to Starship achieving orbit.

It should be the policy of America's space program to transition support to the Starship after it first achieves orbit.

Next: Public-Private Partnerships