Starship II: The Return to the Moon
Starship should put the next astronauts on the Moon. Can it also take them further?
This article is the second in a series on SpaceX’s Starship rocket. Parts of this series, including this article, will initially be available only for paying subscribers. If you are not already a subscriber but would like to support my work and help me spend more time researching and writing articles, you can do so (with a discount) at this link. Thank you for your support!
Half a century ago Man walked upon the face of the Moon. Twelve men, to be precise, who remain the sole members of the human race to have visited another world. All told they spent a little less than two weeks on the lunar surface, over which time they traversed about sixty miles of its terrain. They left behind machines and flags, hauled bags of rocks into their spaceships, and returned to Earth as heroes.
Aside from the rocks and prestige, however, America got precious little for its efforts. In total the landings consumed the work of four hundred thousand people and the equivalent of two hundred billion dollars of wealth. Put in that context, the roughly two thousand moon rocks came at a price of one hundred million dollars each - or, in terms of weight, were seven thousand times more expensive than gold.
Of course, the moon landings did inspire advances in technology. Over the eight years between 1961 - when Alan Shepard became the first American in space - and 1969 - when Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon - America learned how to live and work in space. They built the Saturn V, the world’s first superheavy rocket; they lofted capsules into orbit and learned how to dock them. They built a moon lander, and they worked out how to place it safely on the lunar surface.
These were incredible achievements, no less wondrous for what they did than for the short time in which they did it. And afterwards, as a 1969 report to President Nixon outlined, they could have paved the way towards a bright future in space. Armed with the Saturn V, and a more powerful successor, America could have built vast space stations, put a long term base on the Moon and sent humans to Mars.
“This is a milestone - a beginning - and not an end”, the report read, after concluding that NASA had the ability to “land man on Mars within fifteen years”. By now, in other words, we could be looking back at four decades of human exploration of Mars - and all the discoveries and advances that would bring - instead of five decades of stagnation in Earth orbit.
The problem, of course, was money. The proposed project would have cost billions of dollars per year. By the 1980s, when NASA would have looked to Mars, the report estimated the agency would have needed twice as much money as it had spent in the 1960s. Such sums were too high to countenance, and so America chose a cheaper path. Instead of a Moon base we got Skylab, and instead of Mars we got the International Space Station.
That was not quite an end to the dreams inspired by Apollo, but it was hardly the best use of the sweat and treasure poured into the space program. Only now, fifty years later, are we once again daring to look beyond Earth. Artemis - NASA’s new moon program - aims to put men and women on the Moon by the end of the decade. Will this be another dead end? Or could it finally be the milestone that marks the beginning of a bright future beyond Earth?