SpaceX has a huge opportunity to solidify its dominance over space, as well as burnish Elon Musk’s battered reputation.
Sometime this week, SpaceX will be launching its much-anticipated Starship heavy-launch vehicle into space—which company CEO Elon Musk hopes Starship will eventually shuttle humans to the moon and Mars. The mission will mark the first time Starship has ever been flown into orbit. Besides already being planned for a few satellite launches and crewed missions into space, the behemoth, two-stage launch vehicle will eventually be incorporated into NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions to take American astronauts back to the lunar surface.
The launch was initially planned for Monday morning in South Padre Island, Texas. However, it was canceled ten minutes before takeoff and the team transitioned to a wet dress rehearsal instead. Musk later tweeted that the suspected culprit appeared to be a frozen pressure valve.
While SpaceX has opportunities to launch on Tuesday and Wednesday, systems engineer Kate Tice said on a livestream that they’ll need at least 48 hours before the next launch, likely because ground crews need to recycle all of the propellant that was already loaded onto the rocket.
“Learned a lot today, now offloading propellant, retrying in a few days,” Musk tweeted. This is likely a part of a convoluted ploy to launch the Starship rocket on 4/20 because remember: the billionaire is terminally unfunny and desperate for approval.
If and when Starship does launch, however, it will mark a monumental achievement in both launch vehicle development and space travel as a whole. “It’s a step along the way to potentially revolutionary development,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of GW’s Space Policy Institute, told The Daily Beast. “That is lowering the cost of travel beyond Earth orbit, and making it available to a larger number of people.”
Not only is it the largest rocket ever built—standing taller than the Statue of Liberty at 394 feet—its design will allow astronauts to go to and from the lunar surface in the same vehicle. The whole design itself consists of two stages: a lower-stage Super Heavy booster with 33 Raptor engines (which will be launched for the first time ever), and the second-stage Starship spacecraft that’ll be used to ferry astronauts and cargo.
Both stages are designed to be reusable and capable of landing back on Earth much like SpaceX’s much smaller Falcon 9 booster. However, this first flight is designed to be disposable—there won’t be a landing attempt for either part. Instead, Starship will travel into space where it’ll complete a nearly full orbit of Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down into the Pacific Ocean roughly 60 miles away from Hawaii. Both the Super Heavy booster and Starship won’t be recovered after falling to the Earth.
Once the launch happens, it’ll mark yet another feather in the cap for SpaceX. For nearly a decade, the company has dominated the aerospace industry—and for good reason. Since developing and successfully flying reusable boosters, it’s opened the doors for cost-effective space travel in a way that has never been seen or done before.
The technology has allowed it to launch its successful commercial satellite business, internet coverage via Starlink, and incredibly lucrative government contracts to taxi NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX has also had a large hand in the fledgling space tourism industry. Just last year, it helped in private missions such as Inspiration4 and Axiom, which gave billionaires with deep pockets the ability to cosplay as astronauts.
SpaceX’s dominance over the space industry, however, is one of Musk’s only ventures that is showing robust signs of upward success. The billionaire has run up against a wall of self-inflicted wounds and unwise business decisions since last year when he purchased Twitter for $43 billion—a move that even Musk has conceded was at least double what its current valuation is.
Meanwhile, Tesla is steadily eroding its market share in the electric vehicle industry as legacy automakers ramp up development and sales of their own EVs. The company has also found itself in hot water with everyone from the U.S. Department of Justice to its own investors for allegedly overpromising on its autopilot feature that’s been accused of fatally crashing into vehicles and pedestrians.
The Twitter purchase only exacerbated the issues at Tesla too, with many prominent shareholders frustrated at how Musk’s attention seems to be exclusively focused on propping up the social media platform. “Elon abandoned Tesla and Tesla has no working CEO,” KoGuan Leo, Tesla’s third largest shareholder, said in a tweet in December. “Are we merely Elon’s foolish bag holders?”
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Musk’s obsession with getting involved with anything that seems to be on the cutting edge of science and technology. His brain chip startup Nerualink is still struggling to get off the ground despite years of promising that it’ll begin human trials soon. His Boring Company keeps overpromising and underdelivering on contracts to build hyperloops, which are just car tunnels.
More recently, he’s decided to play catch up with his old artificial intelligence startup OpenAI after they released the wildly successful ChatGPT—pledging to build his own AI business dubbed X.AI.
Yet despite all this, SpaceX has remained relatively untouched when it comes to controversy and financial impact from Musk’s other business ventures. While there are plenty of reasons for this including the fact that the company relies primarily on lucrative government and commercial contracts to launch satellites and astronauts into orbit, one big reason is that Musk is relatively uninvolved in SpaceX’s regular operations. Instead, SpaceX’s COO and President Gwynne Shotwell is at the helm.
“[Gwynne Shotwell], who runs SpaceX on a day by day basis, is very good,” Logsdon said. “She runs the company while Elon flips around. He is not involved on a day by day basis given all the other things he’s up to.”
Ironically, the man who desperately wants to be the face of Mars colonization and space travel is actually doing more for it by taking a step back and distracting himself in other ventures.
Still, this isn’t to say that Musk and SpaceX haven’t changed the landscape of the aerospace industry as we know it—and it’s no stretch to say that the Starship launch will be one of the most consequential missions in the history of space travel.
Not only will the technology pave a cost-effective and efficient way to reach and, eventually, settle the moon, but it will also play a large role in our plans to colonize Mars.
Logsdon adds that it’s not a given that the first launch will be successful. Considering the unprecedented complexity of the rocket, there are a nearly infinite number of ways that the launch goes wrong—including blowing up in a spectacular fireball on the launch pad.
However, he said that there’s “some level of cautious enthusiasm” with the mission. After all, it’s going to work eventually. When it does, that’s when we’ll see space exploration truly take off.
“If you look at what Falcon 9 has done to carry payloads into space, it really has disrupted the space launch market,” Logsdon explained. “And Starship intends to do the same thing for human spaceflight.”