Space revolution or playground for superlatives?

At SpaceX, the joy was great: The “Starship” rocket successfully broke away from the launch pad on its first launch on April 20, and managed at least a good four minutes of the originally planned flight of more than one hour.

The space world sometimes has a slight penchant for superlatives. “Starship” serves this excellently. At 111 meters, NASA’s Saturn V held the record for the largest rocket ever flown. Now the “Starship”, a combination of the booster rocket “Super Heavy” (the name is program with a launch mass of around 5000 tons) and the spaceship “Starship” holds the record with an incredible 119 meters. “Starship” is not only the longest, but also the most powerful rocket. One day it should be able to transport as much payload – i.e. people, satellites, equipment – into space as no rocket before it.

The costs are also increasing

But it’s not just the rockets – whether “Starship” or “SLS”, with which Nasa wants to fly back to the moon – that are getting bigger and bigger. Of course, the costs also increase in view of this higher-faster-farther. Sometimes I ask myself in the face of these superlatives: is it really necessary? But if we want to continue to explore the universe, or, as SpaceX puts it, if humanity is to become “multiplanetary,” then the answer is yes.

Because to get to the Moon and Mars – the latter is at least six months away – it is still a long way, not only because of the distances. Fuel and the high costs involved are two of the main difficulties. That is why the “Starship” is the first rocket ever to use methane as fuel. Because methane can also be produced on Mars for a return flight. It is also planned to refuel the “Starship” after launch in Earth orbit. Refueling also enables a larger payload of more than 100 tons. For comparison: Depending on the configuration, the SLS “only” manages just under 50 tons.

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Questionable humor, serious business model

Add to that the low-cost, recyclable Raptor engines and the plan to land both stages of the Starship in the future just like the Falcon-9 rockets already do. Musk hopes to be able to launch a “Starship” for $10 million in a few years – that would be an incredibly low sum in space travel.

Thus, the “Starship” is not just currently the leader in a superlative competition, but actually a sensible means to an end for further exploration of space.

But even if “Starship” hides a very serious business model: Musk still remains a bit of a playground. In the past, for example, he had a fondness for the number 420 – a code for cannabis use in the USA. So Musk could imagine delisting Tesla and to sell the shares for $420 each; tweeted, that “69,420% of all statistics are wrong”; and offered to buy Twitter not $54, but $54.20 per share. That doesn’t stop at SpaceX either: The assembly of an earlier version of the Starship? Booster 4, and Ship 20. And finally, Starship started on April 20th, also in the US spelling: 420.

Luckily, you don’t have to share the humor to embrace the vision of multiplanetary humanity.

Insa Thiele-Eich is a meteorologist and researches the connections between climate change and health at the University of Bonn. She has been training as a scientific astronaut for a two-week mission on the International Space Station as part of the Die Astronautin initiative since 2017 – and would thus be the first German woman in space. She is a member of the city council of Königswinter for the Königswinter voters’ initiative. Here she writes every two weeks about space travel, climate change and the fascinating world of science.

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