About Starships and life cycles, but more too

Space system projects experience all the same phases of life as living organisms, from the cradle to the grave. Uncannily alike, too, even before birth, creators may write down a project’s lifeless but necessary instructions. It’s not hardware yet, it’s your creation’s DNA building blocks made of ideas. Sadly, a seedling may not sprout due to errors encoded in the initial plan. Alternately, the seeds are elegantly designed, but they are tossed on concrete, though I continue to be amazed at what fights to take root between the cracks. Another semblance comes after what seems a cold death, as some projects resurrect like trees come to life after a long winter.

Curiously, and erroneously, this infamous chart dating back over a decade shows NASA projects that really were canceled along with projects that clearly were not, as with the NIAC program research over many years.

If you were lucky, in the right place at the right time, more than a few times, you got a sense of what would come to life, grow and flower, or why not. At NASA, I had the privilege of seeing nearly every phase of a space system, a project in its prime, the Space Shuttle, nascent like X-projects, barely conceived like studies, or moribund after failing to read the room. Sometimes a project received its obituary out of the blue or by gathering the troops in a parking lot, terminated with prejudice. One chart infamously memorialized many of NASA’s dead projects. A first impression gave a sense of NASA wasting time and resources. My first-hand impression as someone in the trenches as these projects lived and died was frustration and worse. Then came the critique: NASA could no longer carry out complex, large-scale projects as they once did with Apollo, the Shuttle, or the Space Station.

Over time, impressions change – my own included. If you are in the space biz long enough, you reserve the right to learn and to change your mind. NASA is always (we hope) the ultimate venture fund, taking risks where others dared not tread. The phone often rang, or the email arrived – “we have this project, and we would like you to – support (the favored word in NASA, a poor sign of unclear roles), participate, help, add your experience – or otherwise join.” Most of these projects are on the scorecard with cancellations in red. Failure is not an option? Some of us didn’t get the memo.

“…here we are again, outnumbered, bringing a knife to a gunfight, with little chance to succeed…when do we start?”

“I would be glad to help out.” – came my reply. But, I thought, and often said outright by others – “here we are again, outnumbered, bringing a knife to a gunfight, with little chance to succeed…when do we start?”

Today the private sector is taking on significant risk in space system projects, with dreams favoring high risks and high rewards. This was inevitable. NASA’s budget isn’t what it used to be. Adding to the trend, having firmly decided that what’s next is building on the Shuttle, it’s been easy to put off what’s far ahead – after the Artemis moon program and its SLS and Orion centerpieces.

One of these private-public ventures is the Starship, a partnership of NASA and SpaceX (easily seen as solely a SpaceX-funded project.) The Starship is well out of its cradle, due to launch any day now. At the risk of being the Starship umpteenth headline of the day, I can say I have skills, a unique set of skills I still employ here and there. While it’s important to vet your experts – most recently, we find enormous numbers of banking experts, before that on military strategy, atop millions of newfound experts in epidemiology – I feel I can offer a few sideways musings from having lived my share of these kinds of projects.

Where is the Starships crew launch abort system?

The SpaceX Starship lacks a launch abort or launch “escape” system for the crew. For a cargo truck to space, this is nothing of note. But for a reusable Starship to carry people to Earth orbit, only a few paths lie ahead, two highly improbable, and a third to leave us wondering how to improve.

One path is for cargo flights to launch often enough with no failures that statistically, you will have shown a Starship without a launch escape system is as safe as if it had one. The numbers for this are in the hundreds of launches, not that such a debate would resolve itself over numbers. Did we say statistics? It will be noted quickly that NASA launched the Space Shuttle with no launch escape system. This merely confirms the point, as with the loss of Columbia, the Shuttle was tasked to finish the International Space Station and then to be retired after only 135 missions. The follow-ons to the Space Shuttle, the NASA Commercial Crew SpaceX Dragon, Boeing Starliner, and the NASA Orion all have launch abort systems. The two are intimately linked, the loss of Columbia and the move to include launch abort systems in any next crew spacecraft after the Shuttle.

Instead, imagine people transferring to their Starship in low Earth orbit from crew-Dragon or anyone’s spacecraft.

Another path for Starship is to add a means to quickly separate a crew at the top from the rocket malfunctioning below. This would be difficult, to say the least. SpaceX has proven itself an amazingly innovative organization – so never say never. But there is a reason the semi-reusable Space Shuttle had no escape system, mainly the desire to have a sizable payload. Adding an escape system can make your payload disappear fast. Worse, before you know it, your reusable orbital stage does not get to orbit at all or can’t get back. (Already, we see this same tyranny of the rocket equation acting on the Starship design with no landing legs, but more on that below.) SpaceX can imagineer its way around this, possibly with a unique crew variant of the Starship. But again, because something is possible does not mean it’s likely.

The third path for the lack of an escape system on Starship resolves the blind spot simply – never put crew on a Starship at its launched into Earth orbit. Instead, imagine people transferring to their Starship in low Earth orbit from crew-Dragon or anyone’s spacecraft. Here the SpaceX Starship fulfills the vision of carrying dozens of people, not to orbit but in orbit. As a bonus, Starship facilities for people in orbit never have to stray from their focus, a lab, a factory, or accommodations for everyday people. The facility design is not distracted by having people aboard for mere minutes on the way up. Once you are in orbit in one piece, this option has the added benefit of freeing everyone to worry about other problems, like coming back.

Let’s assume the thermal protection system is beta version 0.8

Toward the later decade of the Space Shuttle program, a mere hundred or so “tiles” might be so damaged they were replaced before the next flight. The problem was the other 20,000 tiles. And the edges, seals, transitions, and fillers, all critical and endlessly nickel and diming the effort to turn around an orbiter to fly again. There was no lack of learning, except the design of the Shuttle was not amenable to a re-fit that took advantage of what we learned. Unsurprisingly, the SpaceX Starship went with tiles that are close cousins of the Space Shuttle system. What is surprising, overlooked as if a minor twist, is how this tile sits atop cryogenic insulation – not at all like the Shuttle. This is not even in the same family tree.

You might want to take a look at that.

Our experts said, from the Shuttle experience, make all the tile the same next time, whereas on the Shuttle, most all the tiles were unique. Making replacements would be so much easier – they would be ready on the shelf. SpaceX took this lesson to heart.

It’s the other hundred lessons that will decide if a next-generation tile atop Starship cryogenic insulation will prove dramatically better than the tiles on Space Shuttles. Pop off a tile and put in a standard replacement, and you may find the structure has shifted ever so slightly. The replacement won’t fit, and adjustments take time. Or find a way to scan the empty spot (think dental work) and send the 3D scan to a printer. Step and gap measurements? Avoid the technician with the ruler and go for a laser scan across a large area. Chatter (tiles hitting against each other till they break each other’s edges in the vibration of launch) – that will be the bane of an installation, so focus efforts here. This is all inside baseball and never-ending. But it’s also about how a Starship can go from moving fast and breaking things to changing access to space.

Better yet, an openness to changing the underlying design of the insulation and how tile is attached atop will work wonders. We will find out if the Starship TPS as it is now will permit version 2.0 or hold back the system’s potential. A prototype may be fast, but not the design you want for the long haul. Considering the changes to the SpaceX Falcon 9 over time, there is reason for optimism here.

Starships have to stick (or chopstick) their landing.

We can imagine the difficult design decisions for returning the Starship from orbit. Add legs like the Falcon 9, and you add weight. For the scale, more thrust would be required at landing. So more propellant. This would mean everything aft suffering more vibration, heat, and abuse. This compromises the life left on the engines and hardware. Beef all that up and add still more mass. So you need more thrust at landing, and the vicious cycle continues. A solution? Grab the Starship higher up as it’s about to land, using arms or “chopsticks” on the launch pad structure. Judging from the landing of hundreds of Falcons, SpaceX must know how precisely they can land near a spot. (The numbers must look pretty good to have chosen this path.)

The SpaceX launch pad “chopsticks” lifting the orbital Starship atop the Starship booster. Credit: SpaceX.

This brings us back to putting crew on a Starship, now returning to Earth. This day is also likely far off due to this landing approach, as much as a crew aboard for launch is far off due to the lack of an escape system. But, again, people returning to Earth orbit and transferring from a Starship to the ISS, a private station, or other spacecraft is quite conceivable in the near term.

It’s easy to imagine a space economy of Starships, spacecraft, commercial space stations, and factories, all in reach of Starship propellant depots. Going further, spaceplanes carrying large numbers of people to orbit (with the ability to recover from failures, more like airplanes in their ability to loiter and make emergency landings at airports) fit the possibility perfectly.

“…this is not an analogy or a cliché about memes.”

In the end, its possible projects are not like living things. They are living things. For Starships, factories in space, launchers, satellites, or moving bits and bytes and dreams, this is not an analogy or a cliché about memes. This is reality. Projects are hardware, software, people, and processes, but also knowledge taking form, function, and life. If this sounds familiar, it’s because that describes us humans too.

In one version of this never-ending story, some projects get canceled, but pass along ideas, experience, and technology to new projects. We define steps in this life cycle, creation, birth, operations, death, and, if you are fortunate, adaptation, modification, and return. Here, valuable notions about more reusability (good), robustness (better), and specific technology, like tile dating to the 1970s (but evolved much since), prove persistent. Once, after the loss of Columbia, there was a notion of separating crew and cargo, “that human lives should not be risked on flights that can be performed without people.” All those visions of windows on Starships, with passengers, and those older notions about crew safety may still merge.

But right now, the life-cycle fences we rely on to understand what’s happening probably miss the point. With Starships, but also much more, from hypersonics to in-orbit services, to small science landers on the Moon, it appears a new space eco-system is forming. Where once we had mainly national efforts, we now see projects leaving that curated garden’s defined walls. As an engineer, it was easy to get caught up in the trees, or merely bugs on a leaf and suggesting a treatment. But impressions about what’s happening change, like a project adjusting as it evolves. It seems we are at a moment when a forest may take shape. There is a mighty oak here and there and some other tall trees. Let’s watch what’s underfoot and above in the canopy and the connections growing across that space.

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