An interesting essay published earlier this week in The Space Review raises the coming dilemma that both NASA and Congress will soon have to face once Starship is operational and launching large cargoes and crews to orbit, both near Earth and to the Moon.
That dilemma: What do about SLS and Lunar Gateway once it becomes ridiculously obvious that they are inferior vessels for future space travel?
I think this quote from the article more than any illustrates the reality that these government officials will soon have to deal with in some manner:
[When] the Lunar Starship ever docks with Gateway, the size comparison with Gateway will appear silly and beg the question as to whether Gateway is actually necessary. Does this even make sense? Couldn’t two Starships simply dock with each other and transfer propellant from one to another. Is there really a need for a middleman?
The author, Doug Plata, also notes other contrasts that will make SLS and Lunar Gateway look absurd, such as when two Starships begin transferring fuel in orbit or when a Starship launches 400 satellites in one go, or when a private Starship mission circles the Moon and returns to Earth for later reuse.
All of these scenarios are actually being planned, with the first something NASA itself is paying for, since the lunar landing Starship will dock with Lunar Gateway to pick up and drop off its passengers for the Moon.
The bottom line for Plata is that the federal government needs to stop wasting money on bad programs like SLS and Lunar Gateway and switch its focus to buying products from commercial sources like SpaceX. They will get far more bang for the buck, while actually getting something accomplished in space.
Though he uses different words, and has the advantage of recent events to reference, Plata is essentially repeating my recommendations from my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space [free pdf]. Plata draws as his proof for his argument the recent developments with Starship. I drew as my proof a comparison between SLS and what private commercial space was doing for NASA, as starkly illustrated by this one table:
The government has got to stop trying to build things, as it does an abysmal job. It instead must buy what it needs from private commercial vendors who know how to do it and have proven they can do it well.
If the government does this, will not only save money, it will fuel an American renaissance in space. As we see already beginning to see happen now in rocketry and the unmanned lunar landing business.
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