Space Travel as It’s Meant to Be

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Fully stacked Starship SN20 on top of Superheavy booster BN4. Photo by Elon Musk.

Picture a small boy, three to four years old, glued to the television, watching a series of giant Saturn V rockets lift off from a pad in Florida, bound for the moon, each carrying three intrepid astronauts. Then picture that same boy a few years later, staying home from school so he can watch another Saturn V loft the Skylab space station into orbit, followed by a series of smaller Saturn 1b rockets ferrying astronauts to the lab, and then later to dock and shake hands with cosmonauts in orbit. That little boy is, of course, dreaming of one day following in those explorers’ steps, to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

The Space Shuttle came onto the scene in the 80s, promising frequent launches with high reusability – but it never really delivered on that promise. Sure, parts of it were reusable, but the turn-around maintenance was such that it was the equivalent of tearing down and rebuilding the engine of the family car after every trip out to the grocery store. Instead of opening a new gateway to the stars, the Shuttle heralded a stagnation of the space program, trapped in low earth orbit.

When the Space Shuttle retired, the US didn’t even have a way to send astronauts to the International Space Station – we had to hitch rides (at huge expense) with the Russians on their aging, old-school – but highly-reliable – rockets. Now watch as that little boy grows up, discards his dreams of space travel, and moves into a career in software development.

Cue 2021, but forget about the pandemic and all that other stuff for a minute. Virgin Galactic air-launches a rocket-plane carrying civilians into suborbital space, followed closely by Blue Origin launching a capsule carrying civilians, also into suborbital space. Both companies have the goal of bringing about space tourism, where folks who have enough money (and a lot of it) can participate in the same kind of space travel experiences that Alan Shephard and Gus Grissom had in the early 60s. In a couple months SpaceX will launch the Inspiration 4 mission: four civilians will go into orbit for a few days aboard a Crew Dragon capsule. More and more people will have the opportunity to shake off the shackles of Earth, even if only for a short time. That’s pretty cool. That makes the little boy stir again.

But as I sit here, that little boy inside me is practically weeping for joy as I view pictures of a fully stacked SpaceX orbital Starship sitting atop its Super-Heavy booster next to a seriously cool, equally massive launch tower. This rocket is taller than the Saturn V of my youth, and with twice the power. This rocket has the capability to return folks to the Moon or take them to Mars – and beyond. And – this is the kicker – it’s designed to be fully reusable! Both the Starship and its booster will take off and land again, turn around, and do it all over. Seems like science fiction, but SpaceX has practiced landing its Falcon 9 boosters so much, it’s almost become routine. It’s going to revolutionize space travel.

In the next few years, Starship will send civilians on a mission around the moon and back. It will deliver the next people to the lunar surface, along with 100 tons of cargo. It will take colonizers by the hundreds and then the thousands to Mars, enabling humankind to become a multiplanetary species. Starship is going to reshape the future of humanity in ways little boys and girls dreamed about when watching those early, heady days of space exploration. Folks in the future will look back at this time – our lifetimes – as the beginning of a new era in our social evolution.

This is what the future of space travel was intended to be. This is how that little boy dreamed of riding bravely into new, unexplored regions of space. Our future is bright, and it’s about to get a whole lot bigger.