NASA endorsement allows SpaceX to shift focus to Starship


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Capitalism in space: Three different news stories today about SpaceX point out strongly the direction in which the company is heading, both in its design focus and in where it will be doing it.

First, SpaceX has informed the Port of Los Angeles that it is now definitely abandoning all plans to establish a Starship manufacturing facility there.

The company made this announcement on March 27th, which means it is not directly related to the tiff that Musk had with Alameda County officials about keeping his Tesla factory open during the California Wuhan panic lock down, which occurred in early May. Nonetheless, this decision, combined with Musk’s May 9th statement that he was going to move Tesla from California, suggests strongly that he and SpaceX is losing patience with California politics, and is likely to increasingly minimize the presence of Musk’s companies there.

This also means that the company will be expanding its Starship operations in both Texas and Florida.

In a second related story, it appears that — with the success of the first manned Dragon mission — Musk now wants SpaceX to shift its development focus entirely to Starship. Prior to that successful Dragon launch, NASA had made it clear that it did not want the company distracted by Starship, and instead stay focused on fixing any issue that might delay Dragon. As NASA is SpaceX’s biggest customer, the company was obliged to comply.

With the Dragon success however SpaceX has completed the job, so Musk now feels free to shift the company’s development teams over to Starship. And NASA is even helping him do this (today’s third SpaceX story) by agreeing at last to permit the company to use reused Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules for future manned missions.

In a wholly unexpected turn of events, a modification to SpaceX’s ~$3.1 billion NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) contract was spotted on June 3rd. Without leaving much room for interpretation, the contract tweak states that SpaceX is now “[allowed to reuse] the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft beginning with” its second operational astronaut launch, known as Post Certification Mission-2 (PCM-2) or Crew-2.

NASA in the past was very slow to accept the use of reused capsules and rockets. It now appears they have abandoned this reluctance entirely, so much so that we could even see American astronauts flying into space on a reused rocket and in a reused capsule before the end of the year.

I want to pause to let this fact sink in. SpaceX has turned what what was considered only a few years ago as an absurd, dangerous, and wholly insane idea into the only and right way to do things.

This big endorsement of reusability by NASA also means that the agency is now willing to let SpaceX make its shift to Starship, since refurbishing rockets and capsules does not take the manpower as building new equipment.

Expect the action in Boca Chica to ramp up quite spectacularly this summer.

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13 comments

  • geoffc

    The work and the pace of it, happening in Boca Chica is already quite astounding… SN4 was just tested to destruction and SN5 is almost complete, SN6 is partially complete, SN7 parts are assembled…

    Faster than pretty much anything we have seen in rocketry (ever?).

    Even more/faster is going to be awesome!

  • jburn

    As side note, I’d read somewhere that Elon Musk was also selling his homes in California. Good timing on his part, the local government agencies are completely overwhelmed and distracted.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I would like to see Dragon recovered “dry” along with reuse for manned flights. That could mean catching it in a net like the fairings, airbags + retro thrust from Super Dracos, or even propulsive landing, although the last would probably be too big an investment in the Dragon at this point.

    Ps. Spacex HQ is in Hawthorn, California. They build F9 and Dragons there, so maybe it is phased out an HQ moves to… Houston? Orlando? DC? But they build Raptors there too…

  • jburn

    The strong shift of focus to Starship is really significant. Musk might realize his goal of landing a Starship on the moon and mars in 4-5 years. Possibly manned to one of those locations. A stunning possibility.

  • LocalFluff

    Elon Musk is like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden combined (their offspring?) in Atlas Shrugged. But with rockets instead of trains and with a very much more supportive society.

  • Matthew Straney

    The year is 2024, its President Trumps last year in office. Democrats in Congress and Bureaucrats have stonewalled his boots on the Moon because they hate to see someone be successful. Trump show pay space X through the government or his own pockets to Launch something on the moon. On Falcon or Starships. Would be great if it was a Starship just so they could try their luck at landing. It would be there for later sightseeing (Cough Discount Elon! cough)

  • Ray Van Dune

    Most people do not realize that once you are in Earth orbit, you are most of the way to everywhere in the solar system – not in terms of distance of course, but in terms of energy required. We live at the bottom of a huge gravity well, and once we climb out of it, the sky’s the limit… we’ll, actually It’s not!

    If Spacex can master on-orbit refueling as they have (nearly) mastered relanding of boosters, ships like Starship will be able to roam the planets, landing on and exploring them and returning to Earth orbit, in many instances without using throwaway stages. With in-situ refueling we could see a golden age of space travel that would make Heinlein smile!

  • Matt in AZ

    Ray Van Dune: “If Spacex can master on-orbit refueling as they have (nearly) mastered relanding of boosters…”

    If that’s the case, lets just hope SpaceX tests refuelling at out a low enough orbit that any explosive debris reenters quickly!

  • Dick Eagleson

    The second abandonment of the notional Terminal Island Starship plant was, indeed, not a consequence of Elon’s recent tiff with Alameda County about re-opening Fremont – it was occasioned by the initial closure order for Fremont just a few days before the date on the formal letter of lease cancellation. Given that the new deal for the Terminal Island site had been concluded barely a month before that, no other rational interpretation is possible.

    So long as Hawthorne had a national security exemption from Covid-19-related closure orders, SpaceX could also turn out smaller Starship parts there – and continues to do so. But a plant stood up solely to make Starship hulls would likely have been subject to the same open-ended closure order as Fremont. So Elon elected to minimize his suddenly much more highly probable future losses and cancel ASAP.

    The ultimate fallout from the Fremont re-opening dust-up in May is likely to be a longer-term de-emphasis, or even full withdrawal, of Musk-related manufacturing enterprise from CA. If McGregor suddenly starts producing Raptors as well as testing them and/or there is suddenly a new “tent” at Boca Chica cranking out Starship aero-surfaces, these will be early indicators that Musk’s corporate footprint in CA is headed for zero.

    Musk’s recent memo establishing Starship’s top priority within the company does not mean all development will now focus on Starship, just that it will have first call on engineering resources. There is still Dragon XL and other comparatively minor development efforts to continue and this will be done. But these other things are mostly less time-critical than Starship.

    Now that NASA has some weight resting on Starship as well, this new prioritization will also be in line with NASA’s interests. That is, at least in part, probably behind NASA’s recent contract mod to allow reused hardware on USCV missions to ISS. The other part of the decision is likely NASA’s insider knowledge that Boeing isn’t going to be making any USCV runs of its own for at least two years. If SpaceX is allowed to conduct such missions with used hardware, it can keep Crew/Cargo D2 production at extant rates, shift the refurb workforce smoothly from Dragon 1 to the Dragon 2s and fly extra USCV missions in Boeing’s place for as long as required without needing to shift any resources away from Starship. That wouldn’t have been possible if SpaceX was going to have to do double duty on USCV runs with the previous “new-vehicles-only” policy in place.

    This is just one more bit of evidence that SpaceX, over the past 6 months, has decisively replaced Boeing as foremost in NASA’s corporate affections. Great things have already come of this. A whole lot more is sure to follow.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Regarding the in orbit refueling…

    You must still weigh in the cost of getting the gas to the gas station.

    Yes the prime vehicle can remain in orbit, and then proceed with it’s presumed deep space journey, but the there is still the cost to get the propellant up there in the first place.

  • @LocalFluff

    “Elon Musk is like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden combined (their offspring?) in Atlas Shrugged.”?

    I don’t recall the part of “Atlas Shrugged” where the government gives over $5,000,000,000 to a wealthy businessman to create industries out of whole cloth without turning an annual profit on any of them.

    Just saying.

  • The (Deplorable) MUSEman wrote, “the government gives over $5,000,000,000 to a wealthy businessman to create industries out of whole cloth without turning an annual profit on any of them.”

    First, your numbers are wrong. SpaceX’s contract with NASA for crew Dragon flights is for $2.6 billion, not $5 billion. Second, the contract was not for something “out of whole cloth,” that did not exist. Both Falcon 9 and Dragon existed and were flying and profitable when the contract was awarded. NASA merely wished some upgrades before they’d put their passengers on them.

    Third and most important, since 2014 SpaceX has completed 81 successful launches. I haven’t run the precise numbers, but probably only about 25% were for either NASA or the military. That means 75% were commercial, at a launch price ranging from $50 to $67 million. Even at the lower figure, this means SpaceX made about $3 billion on these launches alone. Probably more.

    SpaceX is not being subsidized by the government. It is offering a product to the government, which is better than anything anyone else is offering, and the government is buying it, as a customer. You should be aware of the difference.

  • Star Bird

    When can we get to use a Shuttle Craft or Runabout? Better raise those Deflector Shields and ready the Phaser Banks and Photon Torpedos

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