Big projects are waiting for Starship to straighten up and fly right

Bob McDonald's blog: Space projects from both public and private industries are looking to take advantage of the world's biggest reusable rocket, once SpaceX's Starship is ready to take off again.

Bob McDonald's blog: The world's biggest reusable rocket holds a lot of potential

Silhouettes of two people on horseback approach the silhouette of a large rocket against a blue sky.

Despite a premature explosive ending to the first attempted orbital flight by SpaceX's Starship cruise vessel, there looks to be a lot of potential for the rocket's capacity to bring passengers and equipment to orbit — beyond Elon Musk's public statements about taking human colonists to Mars.

SpaceX already has a contract with the U.S. government and a number of private companies have proposed projects that could take advantage of the enormous potential of the world's biggest reusable rocket, if the project succeeds.

It is hard to grasp how large Starship is, because we see it standing alone on a flat Texas plain, with nothing close to it for comparison. But standing at 120 metres, it is taller than the Peace Tower on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and twice the height of Niagara Falls. Its announced capacity is 150 metric tonnes to orbit, which is about the mass of a blue whale. It may be able to carry up to 250 tonnes if the rocket is discarded rather than returned to Earth to land.

That's a lot of space to take stuff to space.

Private companies are designing futuristic space habitats that will fit inside a big launcher like Starship, anticipating the need for a new generation of space stations once the aging International Space Station (ISS) is retired. The ISS to be decommissioned by the end of the decade.

One such project is the orbiting laboratory called LOOP Multi-Purpose Orbital Module, which was unveiled by Airbus Industries this week. In addition to science laboratories and living quarters, plans for the spacious LOOP include a unique centrifuge that will spin to create artificial gravity for the crew to counter the negative effects of weightlessness on the body.

An artist's rendering of a three-deck housing unit for a future space station.

On a much larger scale, the Voyager Station as imagined by the Space Development Corporation, is an extraordinarily ambitious plan. It includes a huge rotating space hotel made up of many modules assembled into a giant rotating ring, able to host 440 people in luxury accommodations. This is very similar to the fictional space station depicted in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Skepticism about some of these plans is appropriate.

However, there are more immediate and potentially realistic plans as well. NASA is depending on Starship to deliver astronauts to the surface of the moon as part of the Artemis III mission.

All of these mega-projects will have to wait until Starship or some other future heavy-launch vehicle is proven to be reliable and safe. So far, it has managed to get off the ground but not to orbit. This is in keeping with the history of rocketry where inaugural flights of new vehicles don't always go well. SpaceX founder, chief executive and chief engineer Elon Musk said on Twitter that the next Starship test launch would take place "in a few months."

But SpaceX has shown with its other rocket, the Falcon 9, which is flying almost weekly, that it can provide reliable, reusable rockets that are much cheaper to fly than conventional disposable machines such as NASA's giant SLS.

If Starship can prove its potential by reaching orbit around the Earth, or flying tourists to the moon and back, and demonstrate its reusability and reliability, it might be able to begin the big job of building big things in space, on the moon and Mars.

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