The Caravel and the Starship

Prior to the 15th century, European maritime adventures were primarily limited to coastal navigation outside the Mediterranean Sea.  In the late 15th century, spearheaded by Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese developed a new type of ship called the caravel.  The caravel had capabilities beyond other sailing ships of the day, and because of its design, was capable of voyages on the open ocean.  On August 3rd, 1492, the caravels Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria departed from Palos de la Fronterra, Spain, heading westward into the Atlantic Ocean.  On October 12th, they made landfall on an island that is now part of the Bahamas.  Months later, the Nina sailed into the port of Lisbon with news of the discovery.  It was an epochal moment.  The world has never been the same.

Today, on the Gulf Shore of Southeast Texas, the world witnessed the first launch of the caravel of the Space Age.  Starship, boosted by the Super Heavy first stage (the largest, most powerful rocket ever built) cleared the pad and roared into the skies over the Gulf of Mexico.  While the flight did encounter what Elon Musk refers to as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly, one should not view this test as a failure.  This is particularly true when considering the iterative engineering process of SpaceX – and its mantra of “Move fast, break things.”  The flight hit several important milestones while also yielding valuable data which SpaceX engineers will use to further refine the design, fix flaws, and get the next iteration of this rocket on the pad within a few months.  Keep in mind that SpaceX is the same company now has over 100 consecutive successful, propulsive landings of the Falcon 9 booster – many of them re-used multiple times.  There was a time when the “smart” people said such a thing was not even possible.  And yet, here we are – propulsive landings of the Falcon 9 first stage are nearly as routine as successful airplane landings.  When a company has a track record like that, it’s foolish to bet against them.

Why is Starship significant? Just as the caravel was designed to carry people across the oceans of Earth, Starship was designed for carrying people across the oceans of empty space.  And just as the caravel took many too the new world, the motivation for designing Starship was the same, with Mars being the prime target (a variant will also take astronauts back to the moon).  It will be entirely reusable, capable of returning to the world from which its journey started, just as the Nina did.  No other such crewed spacecraft currently exists or has ever existed. Starship will be the first. Furthermore, it will further reduce launch costs.  Falcon 9 can already put approximately the same amount of payload into the same orbit as the Space Shuttle could – but at 1/20th of the cost.  A fully operational Starship promises at least another order of magnitude reduction in that cost.  Thus, in both cost and capability, Starship will be the vehicle that truly opens the final frontier, not just for a few astronauts that can meet NASA’s exacting standards, but for ordinary people.  When Starship lands on Mars with humans on board, it will be every bit as epochal as the moment when Columbus realized the significance of his discoveries.

Like the 1960’s, we live in tumultuous times.  But also, like the 1960’s, we live in exciting times, certainly when it comes to advances in spaceflight.  Whereas the previous era was driven by governments and the impetus of the Cold War, the advances of the present era are being driven by the private sector, and without many of the non-technical limitations of the former era.  While looking at some of the goings-on in the world today is rather depressing, the world of spaceflight is as exciting as it has been at any time since the build-up to Neil Armstrong’s call of “Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed.”  

To be sure, there is a long way to go, as the ending of today’s test flight attests.  But I am more confident than ever that we will see Starship take humans to Mars, and maybe even beyond; that we will see the first trickle of a migration that was once as inconceivable as the migrations to the New World were in 1491.  What an incredible time to be alive.

Godspeed, Starship.