Will SpaceX Ever Graduate To All-Up Testing?


The hurling of metaphorical spitballs being part of the job description, opinion writers can’t resist comparisons. Here’s a topical one: Which is bolder, Elon Musk’s proposal to launch humans to Mars or Apollo 8? It’s an easy answer and I picked 8 not 11 for a reason.

SpaceX’s high-altitude tests of its Starship Mars rocket have become a media favorite recently because the enterprise is inspiring in a goofy, Buck Rogers sort of way and the spectacular explosions are perfect for the six-second clip that’s now the staple of television news. With happy talk livestreaming of launches dominating the coverage, SpaceX’s lack of flesh on the bones of its Mars project goes unnoticed.

So what exactly have they thus far accomplished with this Starship spectacle? In my view, the explosions and trick belly flop maneuvers obscure what SpaceX’s real accomplishment is: successful landing and re-use of boosters that has all but crushed their competitors. Precise metrics have been hard to come by, but last fall, Space Force announced it would allow SpaceX to launch the current block of replacement GPS satellites on refurbished boosters. Space Force said that will cut the launch costs from about $97 million each to about $71 million, a reduction of 27 percent. That itself might not be the cliche game changer, unless you’re United Launch Alliance or Arianespace trying to compete with these guys.

Of the current known launches on the booster calendar through this fall, SpaceX has 14, Russia has seven, ULA has six, the Chinese four, the Indians three, Arianespace and related entities four and companies launching from Wallops Island in Virginia have two. I don’t care what you think of SpaceX, for a company founded only in 2002, that’s astonishing progress. And along the way, it developed a human-rated spacecraft that’s making trips to the International Space Station as rival Boeing struggles to get the Starliner system to the same point. As SpaceX accelerates its reusable booster program, its launches may get less expensive yet.

So what we see in the Starship tests is SpaceX leveraging, on the cheap, what it’s learned in recovering 74 boosters and applying it to a larger vehicle. It’s also testing the aerodynamic surfaces on both ends of the rocket that will control it when it enters the sensible atmosphere. Keep in mind that what we’ve been watching SpaceX launch is the notional entry vehicle, both for the Mars and the Earth ends of the trip. It’s the second stage of a larger system that puts the Starship into orbit for refueling and sends it on its way to Mars. The Starship is also intended to have a large, heavy lift bay for missions to Earth orbit.

Fine as far as it goes. Coverage of the tests—even the explosions—has been rather fawning, perhaps because we give Elon Musk a certain aspirational credit without asking too many questions about the details. He deserves the cred. But my awe meter isn’t quite pegged yet. I’m looking for a little more because my generation’s frame of reference is Apollo to the Moon.

While that’s old history, it’s also bold history. Prior to 1964, NASA had planned a plodding, cautious developmental path to the Moon that envisioned at least 10 unmanned flights of the Saturn V/Apollo system and a total of 20 to actually land on the Moon. Then George Mueller, the new head of the human spaceflight program, proposed all-up testing: just put the entire rocket together and fly the damn thing. For some inside NASA, that was staggeringly reckless. But without it, we would never had landed on the lunar surface by 1969, President John F. Kennedy’s arbitrary but symbolic deadline.

Mueller’s all-up testing yielded this astonishing fact: On only the third flight of the full Saturn V, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon for 20 hours, including Christmas Eve 1968. It was stunning. And that’s why Apollo 8 was bolder and more inspiring than anything in space flight before or since, maybe even to include the actual landing.

So what would the equivalent for SpaceX be? In my view, it’s not just landing boosters, even bigger boosters. Orbiting the Starship would be impressive, but far more impressive would be to fly one (uncrewed) out to Mars and put it on the surface. Land it close enough for Perseverance to get video for the evening news.

Then, I’ll be impressed.  

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  1. I am impressed with SpaceX and Elon Musk. From visionary conception to today, Musk has actually accomplished much rather than the usual computer generated video artist/visionary renderings of things hoped for. Plus, SpaceX is not the only thing happening within Muskdom. He build electric cars among other interesting gadgets. While he has his visionary peculiarities, he is one of the few who can take things from conception to working production. SpaceX is the external force, just like JFK and George Mueller was in the 60’s to accelerate the status quo. Musk wants to go to Mars. To get there, he will blow up a few more rockets, gather accurate and reliable data in the most spectacular way, while being ignored more and more by our growing cell phone toting society that will be desensitized from Paul’s current assessment of a 6 seconds to less than three. In other words, he will be ON Mars while most will be oblivious he even left earth. Manned flight will come as seamlessly as it did when he started shuttling crews to ISS. And it will be no big deal to John Q Public.

  2. You cannot graduate to All-up testing until development is complete. The Starship system is still deep in development, and is notable for a very hardware-rich development process. Apples & oranges and all that.

  3. Just to pick nits. The end of the “JFK decade” was 31st Dec 1970. Not 1969. Just like the end of the last century was really 31 Dec 2000 (but the programming of THAT period had everyone worried about Y2K so everyone around the world got super excited a year early).

    Sometimes on scale modelling fora – I get called a “rivet counter”.

    • I see your nit, and raise you a nit and a half.

      The end of the “JFK decade” was indeed 31st Dec 1969. The end of the last century was indeed 31 Dec 1999. That is because the first decade of the common era had 9 years (1 CE – 9 CE), and the first century had 99 years (1 CE – 99 CE). Remaining decades of the common era have had the expected 10 years, with the all but the lowest year digit being the same for each year of the decade. Similar for the remaining centuries of the common era.

      “But,” you cry, looking up from your rivets, “a decade by definition has 10 years!” By whose definition? These categories exist to serve human needs, humans do not exist to serve definitions of decades. Humans want decades and centuries to end on tidy year boundaries. The definitions must therefore serve that desire.

      Just as the year 1582 had 355 days in the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish dominions, but 365 days in England, and 1752 had 354 days in England but 365 days in Russia, while 1918 had 352 days in Russia but 365 days in Spain and England (see: adoption dates of the Gregorian Calendar), so too there is one decade and one century which have different lengths, to make everything else come out right.

      Also, great job with the rivets. They look very prototypical. 🙂

  4. They will need a volunteer to clean the lenses on the camera after the landing…
    Ariene 5 was designed to be able to handle a space capsule with humans inside it and still probably would do a very good job. Luckily they did not have humans in the couple of early flights which had to be blown up, and after that volunteers quickly found the door.
    Still do not see the fascination with Mars. It is a much worse place to live than the South Pole, where humans have been living for the last 50 years or so, only by consuming vast quantities of oil and other earth based resources. And cash. The results — we know it is freezing there, and it was the best place to observe the hole in the ozone layer, since repaired.
    Still nice place to visit if you are that way inclined and it is cheaper to get on a “scientific expedition” than to take a yacht and sail down there which increasingly number of ordinary mortals are doing after seeing the pictures on the internet. They are not impressed when they get there — too cold and costs a fortune in food and fuel.

  5. Let me put on my Luddite cap. A maned trip to Mars is a pipe dream, hyped by media, much like drone package delivery and flying cars. The moon landing was a round trip of about a week. Mars will be at least a year. It will be impossible to control anything real-time from Earth. That’s because Mars will be separated from Earth by many light-minutes, which is way too long a delay for real time control. A huge obstacle is the life support for such a duration. Oxygen, food, waste management or recycling, Radiation hazards from solar flares, physical effects of weightlessness, the psychological effects of irrevocable separation. The gravity potential energy well of Mars is considerably deeper than the moon, requiring more energy to land and take off. (Yes, I know, it’s atmosphere will allow some braking for landing -offsetting some landing thrust requirement). The more you think about it, the more difficulties arise. It should be recalled that nearly half of the unmanned probes sent to Mars failed. This would be a far more complex undertaking. And the cost would be literally astronomical. There is no government or private entity that can or will fund such a venture. There is no economic payoff. The present efforts are frills around the edges, where hype keeps it going a while.

    • The atmosphere will also require loads of fuel to fly back. We have landed lots of junk on the planet. Nothing has returned.
      And what is really there? A human can not live on Mars, so why send one? If there is a planet or moon that a human can live on, then it would make sense to send one there to test things out. The moon was more symbolic for humans, and guess why we haven’t gone back in 50 years… there isn’t anything special there that isn’t here on earth.
      The space station is interesting because of the zero gravity experiments, even though it really isn’t ‘zero’ gravity. That place makes sense. It is close enough to earth for travel to and from. It is actually continuously falling toward earth, so it is really just a big Vomit Commit plane for tests in an unusual environment.
      Mars makes no sense.

      • “The atmosphere will also require loads of fuel to fly back.”

        Can you elaborate? That is, how does the Mars atmosphere affect fuel requirements? I can see how an air breathing engine would be in trouble in an oxygen poor atmosphere, or how an extremely dense atmosphere would increase drag – but what would apply here?

    • The time delay for remote (from Earth) control of landing is basically a non-issue. All of the Martian probes have been autonomously controlled while landing and we (JPL) have gotten pretty good at doing it. Besides, the descent and landing phase of the Starship reentry is already controlled by the craft itself. The earthbound humans in the control room basically monitor the process. You are correct, however, about the difficulty of carrying enough supplies and life support for the human passengers on the trip. Once there, both the moon and Mars have everything needed to support life.

  6. “If there is a planet or moon that a human can live on then it would make sense to send one there to test things out.” Well, unfortunately it doesn’t seem there are any likely candidates to fill that order. Besides, sending manned missions out to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn is a far more difficult task that lowly Mars. This is a classic case of learning to walk before we can run. The moon and Mars are stepping stones to deeper exploration of our solar system that maybe our grandchildren will undertake. We go there for the same reason that our ancestors walked from Siberia to Alaska or the passengers on the Mayflower set out into the unknown. Humans have always done it because it is there.

    Actually, living on either the moon or Mars is not really that difficult a task. Both have the things necessary to support life – untapped natural resources, water (ice) and abundant sunshine. There are numerous companies that have already designed habitats for living there and the machinery needed to build them robotically before the people arrive. As usual, the biggest hurdle will be the cost. At least Musk and SpaceX have significantly lowered the cost of transportation to get there and back. Maybe instead of sending people to Mars, Musk might want to first send a Starship or two loaded with the machinery to test out making those habitats. Going to Mars would sound a lot less daunting if you knew you had a reservation at the Mars Hilton when you arrived.

  7. And as a side note: In 1966, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 became the first vehicle to land safely on the lunar surface. This was the first successful landing of anything on another planet, i.e. moon. So 3 short years later went sent humans and returned them to Earth. WHOA. Talk about pushing the limit.

    • And we are still the only country to have done so. OTOH, how many countries have sent unmanned missions? 5 plus that middle school science class from Alabama? And, here’s a stat I heard recently (from a much more reliable source than the one with story of the science class): 40% of French citizens polled claim the Apollo landings were a hoax.
      Now, if the French are so jealous that they are in denial, it had to be a big deal, and worth it.

  8. We wouldn’t be seeing the activity on the human support segment of the get men to Mars effort anyway because it isn’t producing “Ka-boom…wow that was newsworthy” incidents. Presumably though, it is well underway and solid details will emerge in due time. It’s not like there is a hard deadline to meet.

    I’m all for this, not least because the vision, control and money are basically single-sourced. That always improves the focus and streamlines things.

  9. I think you might be overselling Apollo 8 a little bit. It was the 3rd flight of the Saturn V, yes, but of the four ‘vehicles’ in the AS-503 stack (CSM/S-IVB/S-II/S-IC — no LM) only the S-IC and S-II were really green. The CSM had flown five times (4x block 1, plus Apollo 7’s block 2), and the S-IVB had flown six times (AS201-204, Apollo 6 & 7).

    Also, there were really two distinct kinds of risk on that flight. There was the technical risk of flying a crew atop the S-IC and S-II, given the pogo issues on Apollo 6 whose fixes had not been flight tested. There was also the operational risk of flying a crew around the moon for the first time. But, these risks present themselves at different parts of the mission — problems with the booster would occur early in the flight, with good abort options in the Launch Escape System and Service Propulsion System. The operational risk presents itself later, when the crew was relying on relatively better proven hardware in the S-IVb/CSM. It’s not like they took the first one off the line, put three guys in it and shot it at the moon.

    W.R.T “meat on the bones”, I don’t really know how to make an apples to apples comparison between SpaceX and Apollo. But thin flight hardware is still more than no flight hardware, and I don’t think Elon is time constrained the way NASA is. He isn’t going to have to start over at the 8 year mark like NASA has often had to, he doesn’t need to duplicate facilities across lots of congressional districts for lobbying reasons, and if the bread and butter falcon business holds up then he doesn’t have to worry about his budget getting cut out from under him either.