Newsline , Society

Pivotal Year for American Spaceflight

Posted on Wednesday, April 17, 2024
by Andrew Shirley


Crew Dragon spacecraft of the private American company SpaceX in space. Dragon is capable of carrying up to 7 passengers to and from Earth orbit, and beyond. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

The United States could be poised to rocket into a new golden age of space exploration.

At his Texas “Starbase” earlier this month, entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered what was arguably the most ambitious outline for space exploration since President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “Moonshot” speech. With hundreds in attendance, he revealed new details about the company’s plan to send manned flights to Mars “within five years.”

The ambitious plan hinges on the success of Starship, a group of super-heavy launch vehicles developed by SpaceX. The starship fleet will have several variants designed for specific missions, including refueling, satellite distribution, manned missions, and landings, but will all feature the same general design and booster configuration.

The ultimate goal of the fleet is the colonization of Mars, something that Musk has long talked about as his lifelong ambition. The main Starship vehicle is scheduled to have its fourth test flight next month. Its most recent flight took place on March 14. Though the mission did deliver some crucial data, the vehicle broke up during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, showing that there is still work to be done.

If the fourth flight is successful, Musk says he will attempt a fifth test flight before the end of the year. If he keeps to this schedule, manned flights could begin as early as 2025.

Much like the Saturn V rockets a generation ago, SpaceX’s Starship rocket is an engineering marvel. It is the tallest rocket ever built at 397 feet – or 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. It also has the most engines ever in a rocket booster, capable of delivering 16 million pounds of thrust. The previous record-holder, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, can generate just 8.8 million pounds.

As The New York Times reports, “An even more transformative feature of Starship is that it is designed to be entirely reusable… Starship will be able to return from space belly-flopping through the atmosphere like a skydiver before pivoting to a vertical position for landing.”

Starship is not the only milestone-setting spacecraft in development at SpaceX. On February 15, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched Odysseus, an unmanned lunar lander. On February 22, it became the first American spacecraft to land on the moon in more than 50 years. It is also the first privately owned spacecraft to do so.

Though it made a successful landing, “human error” in the pre-launch sequence led to the craft landing at an undesirable angle. One of the lander’s six landing struts broke, which partially blocked its solar panels, hindering its ability to recharge. The craft was designed to function for seven days and then power down for the lunar-solar cycle for 14 days before starting again. Disappointingly, flight controllers were unable to reawaken the spacecraft from its two-week slumber.

Despite the revolutions in spaceflight pioneered by SpaceX in recent years, critics have noted that Musk has a history of making “overly ambitious” predictions about the future of spaceflights, driverless cars, and electronic vehicles.

In 2016, Musk gave a speech similar to the one he gave earlier this month predicting that humans would “reach the Martian surface by 2025.” He declared the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), the former name of the Starship rocket, would launch its initial mission to Mars in 2024. At the time, though he conceded that these targets were “optimistic,” he maintained they were “possible.”

Clearly, Musk’s timeframe was off. But as his supporters have noted, it is exactly that type of ambition and optimism that America needs to reinvigorate its space program.

What’s more, it seems to be working, even if Mankind hasn’t yet landed on Mars. In total, NASA anticipates there will be 223 orbital launches in 2024 alone, more than at any point in history.

NASA is also looking to make strides of its own in space exploration. In October, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper satellite to study Jupiter’s moon, Europa. According to some experts, the celestial sphere is believed to be the most likely location of extraterrestrial life in the solar system. Europa Clipper is designed to “determine if Europa has conditions suitable to support life.”

However, arguably the most unprecedented and innovative space mission in 2024 will not be aimed at a moon or at Mars – and it won’t come from the United States.

This October, the European Space Agency will launch the Hera spacecraft, which will rendezvous with the asteroid Dimorphos in 2026. Two years ago, NASA successfully crashed its DART spacecraft into Dimorphos to test whether humans could divert an asteroid headed for Earth. Hera will now assess the extent of the damage done by DART and help lay the foundation for future planetary defense from asteroids.

In short, space nerds have a lot to look forward to in 2024. Looking beyond that, NASA’s Artemis program is also scheduled to send another probe to the moon in 2025 and potentially return human beings to the lunar surface in 2026 (although that deadline has repeatedly slipped).

Once again, Mankind is looking to the stars not just with awe and wonder, but with ambitions to go there.

Andrew Shirley is a veteran speechwriter and AMAC Newsline columnist. His commentary can be found on X at @AA_Shirley.

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1 month ago

I personally think we should focus on fixing the planet and humanity before we start going out into space.
All this stuff is driven by people who think they can create the Federation like on the fantasy show Star Trek.
Elite Utopian dream. Remember to archive that dream they had to have 3 world wars and billions had to die.
Well if you are following the plot it looks like we are drawing closer to the third world war.

1 month ago

An insane waste of resources, with zero return on investment. There is no extra-terrestrial life, because there is no spontaneous generation of life. It is scientifically impossible, and evolution from one body plan to another is also impossible.

Seth Warner
Seth Warner
1 month ago

Having read about half of Isaacson’s book, I am convinced that Elon Musk was sent by God as a gift to mankind to create something bigger than imagineable. Just what I don’t know yet, but I sure hope it is friendly.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
1 month ago

I don’t suppose there’s any chance of sending Biden and Harris up in one of those rockets to Mars, is there? Better yet, a Titanic tour sub…

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