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Sunday, April 18, 2021

CONTEXT: NASA to Spend US$2,941,394,557 on SpaceX’s Lunar Starship

If I were inclined toward a cynical, Stygian, and conspiratorial outlook instead of my customary sunny and optimistic disposition, I might interpret this news as follows.

Look, NASA doesn't really want to land on the Moon. If they did, they'd have been working on, you know, landing on the Moon, instead of spending billions on a Lunar Tollbooth which will complicate any missions to the surface but spread that delectable taxpayer (and borrowed, and freshly-printed) money around to the congressional districts and states of the politicians who fund the agency. As Robert Zubrin has observed, “NASA used to spend money to fly missions. Now they fly missions to spend money.” If those pesky politicians should demand they actually land on the Moon, which might get the juices up among the hoi polloi and motivate demands for NASA to actually expand the human presence beyond Earth as opposed to flushing money down the toilet on the Space Launch System (SLS) and other grotesque extravagances, then why not choose the cheapest alternative, one with (under the NASA view of things) the highest technological risk and then, when it inevitably fails, say “We told you so. Now, can we return to our incremental plan for flags and footprints sometime around 2030, or 2040, or, well…when we're ready? And how about a budget bump in the next fiscal year?”

Further, in choosing the SpaceX Starship, they not only get the NASA camel's nose under the SpaceX frenetic incremental refinement development tent, they, by spending less than what they're wasting every year on SLS, its ground support equipment, and Orion (the “deep space exploration vehicle” without a toilet), get the whole NASA camel into the heart of Starship development, sending “hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance”, bury it in paperwork, cripple it by hordes of inspectors, sub-sub administrators for diversity, and all of the other reasons no human has ventured beyond low Earth orbit since 1972.

But this may all backfire on NASA, and that would be just wonderful. If there's one thing we've learned over the years, it's not to bet against SpaceX. (Eric Berger's wonderful book, Liftoff, which chronicles the start-up and hard-scrabble years developing and debugging the Falcon 1, is an excellent look into the driven SpaceX culture.) What if SpaceX takes the three billion, nods to the NASA minions, continues their frenetic development pace, and succeeds? A functioning Super Heavy, reusable tankers, and lunar Starship, all of which are required to deliver on the NASA contract, will render SLS, Orion, Gateway/GLOP/whatever they're calling it, impotent and obsolete, and be able to deliver tens of tonnes of cargo and dozens of paying passengers to the Moon on a monthly schedule, while NASA is still pursuing its plans to send four civil service space cadets on brief excursions “every year or two” at a billion or so a pop.

Well, at least when they get there, they'll be able to stay at Bigelow’s lunar hotel, which will have toilets, even in the economy rooms affordable on NASA per diem.

Posted at April 18, 2021 10:40