Elon Musk and Jim Bridenstine are the odd couple behind NASA’s big plans

That’s what you could call the bleary-eyed press conference held by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in the wee …

How better to understand the public-private partnerships that will carry US astronauts into space than during a 4am episode of the Odd Couple?

That’s what you could call the bleary-eyed press conference held by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in the wee hours of March 2 after the latter’s rocket launched a brand-new spacecraft designed to carry the former’s astronauts into space.

More than an hour past the 2:49am launch on March 2, the mood was set when a NASA public affairs official warned that there would only be “one reporter per question.”

Most everyone involved had been at the launch site with little break since 9am the previous morning. Bridenstine relied on slugs of his favorite caffeinated beverage, Mountain Dew, while a jet-lagged Musk described himself as emotionally exhausted and stared off into space before answering questions from equally zonked journalists.

While the controversy-courting billionaire entrepreneur and the former military aviator don’t have much in common besides a love of space technology, the two are dependent on one another: Musk, who dreams of cities on Mars, needs NASA’s business to stay solvent and develop SpaceX’s technology; Bridenstine, the first politician to lead the space agency, needs Musk’s company to succeed to implement his plan to end NASA’s long wait to send humans into deep space.

And with the successful docking of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft at the International Space Station on March 3, that vision is coming closer to reality. The final stage of the demonstration mission is the Dragon’s departure from the station and a splashdown in the Atlantic, expected on March 8.

A shared launch

The mission, the first demonstration flight of NASA’s commercial crew program, had departed from a historic launch pad that sent the Apollo lunar missions on their way. Asked about the significance, Musk mused that “humanity landing on the moon, man, that was maybe the greatest thing ever. So I can’t believe we’re launching from that pad. Thank you for letting us do that.”

“Thank you for refurbishing it,” Bridenstine replied. The former Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma, elected first in 2012, spent his time in office calling on NASA to use private companies for work in low-earth orbit, like flying astronauts to the International Space Station, so that NASA could send more expensive missions to the moon and Mars. That advocacy led him to be tapped by president Donald Trump to lead the agency, a job the Senate confirmed him to in April 2018.

“I hope we go back to the moon soon,” Musk said.

“That’s the goal,” Bridenstine replied, a plan he shared with Quartz readers last year.

“Hell, we should have a base on the moon, a permanently occupied human base on the moon, and send people to Mars, and build a city on Mars,” Musk said. “That’s what we should do.”

Growing pains

Before the launch, the two men had taken a look at the rocket together. According to Bridenstine, Musk explained to him that part of his motivation for creating his company in 2002—famously started with a scheme to buy surplus Russian ICBMs and send a greenhouse to Mars—was to inspire a boost in NASA’s budget. Asked about the doubters at the time, Musk said he thought the company was likely to fail, too, but “it was worth trying anyway.”

But Musk hasn’t always had an easy relationship with the US space agency. Early on, he picked fights, challenging NASA’s decision to award a contract to a potential competitor in 2003, just a year after he started his company and five years before his first rocket would take flight. Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009, led the charge to give private companies a shot at flying space missions, but nursed a personal enmity with Musk dating to disagreements from his time consulting for SpaceX in the company’s early days.

Even as SpaceX became a regular NASA contractor, there were growing pains. Alan Marty, a NASA consultant, recalled that Musk threatened to double the price for every NASA engineer sent to observe the company’s work.

And under Bridenstine, NASA has launched a safety review of SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that aim to fly astronauts for the space agency. The review was prompted by Musk taking a puff on a cannabis cigarette during a podcast, and is seen in the aerospace industry as a warning for him to behave, or at least be more discreet.

Friends with benefits

SpaceX has proven its value to the space agency, saving it money and pushing other NASA contractors to reduce prices and invest in innovation. And Musk and the rest of the SpaceX team are always clear about the existential debt they owe the government space program. Indeed, the lead-up to the launch was dominated by the company and the agency celebrating their cooperation on the highly complex task of taking people into space safely.

And, while SpaceX’s entire business is built on fixed-price contracts to save the space agency money, the bulk of Boeing’s civil space income comes from traditional NASA contracts like the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that has cost taxpayers $14 billion so far. That’s far more than the cost of the two commercial crew vehicles, the $4.82 billion Boeing Starliner or the $3.14 billion SpaceX Crew Dragon.

With both SpaceX and Boeing vying to fly astronauts this year, the stakes for this new model of space business haven’t been higher. In his closing remarks, Bridenstine laid out the agency’s long-term plan to return to the moon, develop the technology for long-term human space exploration, and head for Mars. The benefits of the space program are already felt here on earth, he added, from remote-imaging monitoring climate change and food production to communications networks fostering global connectivity.

Musk might have expressed the sentiment more succinctly earlier in the presser.

“We want the things that are in science fiction novels and movies not to be science fiction forever, we want them to be real someday,” he said.

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Bird poop and dust could seriously complicate Elon Musk and SpaceX’s latest plan to reach Mars

Over the past few months, Elon Musk has been revealing new details about SpaceX’s upcoming launch system, called Starship. Musk has said the …

Over the past few months, Elon Musk has been revealing new details about SpaceX’s upcoming launch system, called Starship.

Musk has said the new launch vehicle, which he and engineers recently redesigned, will eventually replace all the company’s rockets. It will be fully reusable and extremely cheap to launch, the thinking goes — perhaps reducing the cost of access to space hundredfold. In time, Musk thinks such a system may lead to round-trip Mars tickets that cost less than $500,000 and “maybe even below $100k.”

But that assumes mundane debris like dust or even bird droppings don’t cause Starship’s giant spaceship, as it’s designed, to burn up when landing on Mars or returning to Earth.

Musk has not released the full details of Starship — he’s said that may happen in March or April — but last described it as a 180-foot-tall spaceship that will ride into orbit atop Super Heavy, a rocket booster that’s about 220 feet tall. The spaceship is designed to be refueled in low Earth orbit to propel 100 passengers and more than 100 tons of cargo at a time to Mars.

From left: An illustration of SpaceX’s “test hopper,” Starship spaceship, Super Heavy booster, and Falcon 9 rocket and integrated Starship-Super Heavy launch system.
© Kimi Talvitie

Musk teased “radical” and “delightfully counter-intuitive” design changes in November, and since then he’s meted out core details and confirmed the existence of a “test hopper” prototype the company is building in Texas.

Read more: A $1.37 billion border-security deal might save SpaceX’s launch site in Texas, where Elon Musk hopes to fire off moon and Mars rockets

One key design change is that SpaceX now plans to build Starship with stainless-steel alloys instead of carbon-fiber composites, Musk said. The second change involves a “bleeding” heat shield that leaks liquid through small pores to keep the spaceship cool as it travels at high speeds.

However, more than a few aerospace experts are concerned about how SpaceX would build such a system without it getting clogged.

Why poop, dust, and other debris may threaten Starship

An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket booster. Elon Musk says the launch system will be crafted from stainless-steel alloys polished to a mirrorlike finish.
© Kimi Talvitie

A heat shield is an absolute must for a spaceship.

When a vehicle returns to Earth from orbit, it can reach speeds of about 19,000 mph. That’s so fast that molecules in front of a ship turn into superheated plasma that can corrode, melt, or even vaporize some of the toughest and most heat-resistant materials.

Musk has said the nose of Starship may be exposed to temperatures of about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The type of steel alloy SpaceX may use on Starship’s outer skin, called 310S, melts at about 2,400 degrees.

Most spacecraft (including SpaceX’s upcoming Crew Dragon vehicle) use “ablative” heat shields designed to burn away and insulate a vehicle’s hull during atmospheric entry. NASA used this type of technology in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules. To protect its space shuttle fleet from heat, NASA glued thousands of heavy ceramic tiles to the bottom of each ship.

But Starship, Musk told Popular Mechanics, will have a heat shield cooled by transpiration.

The system would work similar to human skin, in which sweat absorbs the body’s heat, evaporates to carry the warmth away, and ultimately cools off the body. With Starship, the “sweat” would be water or spare methane fuel, and the “pores” would be countless tiny holes in Starship’s steel underbelly.

Read more: SpaceX test-fired a Raptor rocket engine with ‘insane power’ for moon and Mars missions. The future of Musk’s company may ride on its unrivaled performance.

But some aerospace experts said they were concerned about the challenges that such a heat shield would face.

“You can imagine it wouldn’t take much to clog something like that, if they were microscopic pores,” Walt Engelund, an aerospace engineer and the director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate at NASA Langley, told Business Insider.

Dwayne Day, who helped investigate the loss of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle and its crew, said such clogs could come from any number of mundane factors.

“What if a bird poops on your rocket and it plugs up a few holes, and then when the thing is returning no coolant comes out of those holes and that section of the vehicle overheats?” he said.

NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover in March 2014. Martian winds had just recently blown off a coating of dust from its solar panels.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Dust on Mars, which recently killed NASA’s Opportunity rover by blocking sunlight to its solar panels, could also pose a threat to small pores in Starship’s steel skin.

Plus, Engelund said, the carbon in fuels like methane tend to “coke” or solidify when exposed to high temperatures, so that might also pose a clogging risk if Musk opts for methane as his coolant liquid.

Engelund said various liquid-cooling systems had been tested in NASA’s hypersonic wind tunnels, which blow air at thousands of miles per hour to simulate incredible speeds in the upper atmosphere. In such tunnels, one blocked coolant channel can vaporize an aircraft model.

Looking for clogs in thousands of pores before a spaceship launches from Earth would be tough, but it would be much harder to do that on Mars, where there are no launch towers or gantries.

“How do you make sure that all the holes are open? Or at least that there are no significant obstructions?” Day said.

In an email to Business Insider, SpaceX emphasized that constant tweaks and changes to Starship’s design are expected — that’s part of the company’s larger design approach — as engineers work to make the launch system a reality. The system (previously called Big Falcon Rocket, and other names before that) has already gone through several redesigns since Musk first described it in detail in September 2016.

“They’ve surprised a lot of people and have a lot of smart people working for them, and Elon seems to be really committed and dedicated to this,” Engelund said. “Perhaps there are some things that we could do with them. I suspect there will be.”

Read our full story on Starship’s new design »

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Strong Winds Damage Elon Musk’s Starship Prototype

According to Elon Musk, the mooring holding the vessel down broke once the wind gained speeds of 50 mph. The SpaceX Starship has incurred …
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On Tuesday, the SpaceX spacecraftdestined to transport space colonists to Mars became a victim of strong windsat Boca Chica, Texas. According to Elon Musk, the mooring holding the vesseldown broke once the wind gained speeds of 50 mph. The SpaceX Starship hasincurred severe damage and will require weeks for its repair.

Whoops. Starship Hopper nosecone has been blown over in high winds.

?NSF’s BocaChicaGal https://t.co/liIk970sm5pic.twitter.com/6rgGtZmAE2

— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) January 23, 2019

Lucky for SpaceX, the propellanttanks didn’t take any damage. The Starship has been designed to be launched asa payload from Super Heavy – a large rocket booster. The damaged vessel hadbeen named ‘test hopper’ by Musk. It is smaller than what the finished productwill be. The final version of the Starship is also expected to make its debutwith a more durable skin crafted from stainless steel allow that can take theharsh conditions of deep space.

I just heard. 50 mph winds broke the mooring blocks late last night & fairing was blown over. Will take a few weeks to repair.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 23, 2019

Many will argue if making use ofstainless steel is the right choice. However, as we have learned via Musk, notonly the allow won’t, but buckle will also ‘withstand extreme temperatures, anduse water or fuel as the first-ever regenerative heat shield.’ In one of histweets, Musk has also said that the Raptor engines for the prototypes have beenredesigned using materials from SpaceX’s ‘superalloy foundry.’

Strong Winds Have Heavily Damaged SpaceX’s Starship Prototype!

The prototype Starship was slated tobegin testing soon, but the timeline will most probably be stretched now owingto the repair work that is required. Starship is a crucial part of the Musk’splan of becoming an ‘interplanetary species.’ In an interview with Axios, Musksaid, ‘Your probability of dying on Mars is much higher than on Earth. It’sgonna be hard. There’s a good chance of death, going in a little can throughdeep space.’

Strong Winds Have Heavily Damaged SpaceX’s Starship Prototype!

Another recent announcement made by the company is that it will be cutting 10% of its 6,000-workforce. The company has explained this decision by saying, ‘To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations. This means we must part ways with some talented and hardworking members of our team. We are grateful for everything they have accomplished and their commitment to SpaceX’s mission. This action is taken only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead and would not otherwise be necessary.’

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Elon Musk Explains The Genius Reason Behind Building His Starship Using Stainless Steel

Elon Musk tweeted a picture of the test version of the Starship on 10th January. It is basically a prototype that is capable of suborbital VTOL (vertical …
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SpaceX is building a big rocket using stainless steel. This would be the first time that stainless steel is being used for spacecraft construction since the attempts made during the Atlas program back in the 1950s. The spacecraft that is being built using stainless steel is the SpaceX Starship.

Elon Musk Is Building Starship Using Stainless Steel!

The carbon fiber that made the bodyof the Starship rocket (previously known as Big Falcon Rocket) and the superheavy booster is to be replaced with 300-series stainless. Elon Musk tweeted apicture of the test version of the Starship on 10th January. It is basically aprototype that is capable of suborbital VTOL (vertical take-off andlanding) and attaining a height of16,400. Elon Musk dubbed them as ‘hops.’

In an interview, Musk told that thedesign of the Starship and the Super Heavy rocket booster I have been changedto incorporate a unique alloy of stainless steel. He agreed that this soundcounterintuitive and that he had trouble convincing his team to go into thisdirection. However, he was certain that the team was convinced now. Accordingto Musk, the team was pursuing an advanced carbon-fiber structure. However, theprocess was slow and also cost $136 per kg. Not to mention the 35% scrap rate.

Elon Musk Is Building Starship Using Stainless Steel!

In comparison, stainless steel ismuch cheaper. Although it is not the lightest material, looking at theproperties of the high-quality stainless steel, you wouldn’t be able to tellthat its strength is boosted by 50% at cryogenic temperatures. Steel also has ahigh melting point. In fact, it has a melting point that is higher than that ofaluminum. For instance, with aluminum or carbon-fiber, you can perhaps take itto 300-400 Fahrenheit. However, with steel, you can easily manage 1500 to 1600Fahrenheit.

Elon Musk believes that by making useof stainless tell, the schedule for the Starship will be accelerated. The steelis not only easy to work with but also costs $3 per kg as opposed to about $200per kg of carbon fiber (accounting for the 35% scrap).

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There’s more than one way to go back to the moon

Proponents of SpaceX argue that four to six Falcon Heavy launches, at a cost of $150-200 million per launch, could get the material into orbit, where it …

Mark Whittington’s Jan. 4 op-ed ( “NASA wants to go back to the Moon the hard way”) questioned NASA’s strategy of building an orbiting lunar space station before establishing a base on the Moon’s surface. His piece concludes with a broad swipe at NASA’s Space Launch System, currently under development, and advocating cancellation of the project in favor of commercial launch providers.

Doing so at this time would put the United States at serious risk of failing to meet its stated objectives in both manned and unmanned space exploration, precisely at a time when other nations are undertaking bold new initiatives in space.

Critics of the SLS have focused on its sticker price and a price-per-pound comparison relative to reusable rockets. As former senator and astronaut Harrison Schmitt noted last year, that argument fails to consider the real requirements of a deep space mission.

Ambitious and meaningful missions to the Moon and farther into space will require significant infrastructure. Proponents of SpaceX argue that four to six Falcon Heavy launches, at a cost of $150-200 million per launch, could get the material into orbit, where it could be assembled and then propelled to the final destination. This adds complexity and risk. The total cost for those multiple launches is $600 million to $1.2 billion. Meanwhile, the single SLS Block IB launch could carry all that material to the final destination for $500 million to $1 billion.

We should also note that NASA’s Orion spacecraft has the fuel capacity and systems redundancy necessary to support a mission to the Moon and beyond and the SLS is the only rocket capable of launching Orion. SpaceX’s Dragon is lighter and could be launched on a Falcon Heavy, but the Dragon is not capable of long-duration missions.

Critics of the SLS have also claimed that Falcon Heavy could send two unmanned spacecraft to outer planets for the price of a single SLS-based mission. What is not stated is that these spacecraft would have to be lighter (and less capable) or would have to use gravity-assist maneuvers to propel them to their targets. This can add as many as seven years to the time needed to get a spacecraft into position to begin its science mission. SLS can loft a large unmanned probe directly to Jupiter or Saturn without the need for gravity assist.

Finally, Whittington argues that the SLS will fly only a few times before privately funded launch vehicles render it “obsolete.” However, his timelines assume that SpaceX and Blue Origin remain on schedule and on plan — and that’s a big “if.” Private launch providers are subject to the same technical challenges, delays, and unanticipated cost increases as NASA. For example, SpaceX announced that the Falcon Heavy would fly in 2013. Then, the launch date slipped to spring 2016, then late 2016. Then, it was 2017. The first (and, to date, only) Falcon Heavy launch was February 2018. The delays in developing the Falcon Heavy led to it being outdated before it ever flew. The day before Falcon Heavy’s first flight, SpaceX announced that it would not attempt to certify the Heavy for human spaceflight.

SpaceX still has yet to man-rate its Crewed Dragon spacecraft and the current-generation Falcon 9 rocket. Meanwhile, the company’s website still headlines an article announcing that SpaceX would send a privately crewed Dragon beyond the Moon in 2018. It made for great press, but obviously, the company did not deliver on that bold announcement. This mission might not fly until after SLS is operational.

Finally, we need multiple launch providers. As former astronaut Thomas Jones notes, NASA must appoint a presidential commission to investigate any failure involving a space vehicle carrying humans under federal contract. Even if the crew is unharmed, the investigation and corrective actions could ground a launch vehicle for years. That happened with the Space Shuttle after the Challenger and Columbia accidents. We simply can’t rely on a sole provider.

Visionaries like Elon Musk challenge the status quo and inspire the public to support spaceflight. But we also need reliable and sustainable launch services to propel us into the next phase of space exploration. Canceling SLS before any other launch providers have demonstrated equivalent capabilities would be irresponsible.

Jonathan Ward is a space historian and co-author of Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew.

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