From the Chief Advocate
Four years ago in the Space Policy Edition podcast, I asked if human exploration policy was "stuck". Moon or Mars. Private or public. Heavy-lift or in-orbit refueling. Decades had passed debating the same issues. Various presidents had made various plans for going beyond low-Earth orbit. None of them had succeeded. Despite the churn of PowerPoint presentations and official reports, nothing was getting off the ground.
No longer. I believe that we are at the end of stagnation in human spaceflight. And we are entering the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s.
SpaceX is the most visible example of this, but it itself is not the cause. They are the most salient example of what will define spaceflight in the 21st century: the existence of private aerospace companies pursuing their own ambitions in space, independent of government policy. These companies put in their own cash, pursue their own long-term goals, and—most interestingly—can be leveraged by government to advance its own goals when the two are aligned.
This is what we saw with NASA's decision to invest in Starship as its human landing system at the Moon. SpaceX will match or exceed the $2.9 billion provided by NASA to develop Starship, which is as much a Mars ship as it is a lunar lander. NASA did not just select a lunar lander, it selected a partner with "Moon-to-Mars" ambitions; one that is planning for the long term.
This rise of the hyper-capable, independent private sector, plus the new international consensus (with commensurate commitments) for sending humans to the Moon, means that we are seeing real progress in extending humanity beyond the Earth for the first time in half a century. We are near critical mass in these programs where they flip from "nascent" to "enduring," in essence becoming too big to cancel.
After the human lander contract was awarded, NASA announced a follow-up competition, for lunar transport services. This contract will be open-ended: an ongoing commitment to purchase flights from lunar orbit to the surface. We should not glide past the implications of this. Ongoing access to the lunar surface sounded like a fantasy just a few years ago. This is not a stagnant enterprise. The future is coming, finally.
Until next month,
The Planetary Society
Space Policy Highlights
Why NASA Picked SpaceX to Land Humans on the Moon (planetary.org) "Investing in Starship will help NASA return to the Moon, but it will also do something more consequential. Starship is a Mars ship. By choosing Starship for the Moon, NASA is investing in the Starship program itself, providing SpaceX with a cash infusion for the same technology and systems it needs to get to the Red Planet—a true “Moon-to-Mars” strategy if there ever was one."
Nelson sworn in as NASA administrator (spacenews.com) "Former senator Bill Nelson formally became NASA’s 14th administrator in a short ceremony May 3. Vice President Kamala Harris gave the oath of office to Nelson at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Only a handful of guests and a media pool were in attendance, and the swearing-in ceremony was not broadcast live on NASA TV."
Vice President Kamala Harris will chair the Space Council (arstechnica.com) "The National Space Council will continue operations under the Biden administration, and Vice President Kamala Harris will chair the organization. The National Space Council oversees the three main areas of US space activities—national security, civil space, and commercial space. After it was dormant from 1993 to 2017, President Donald Trump reconstituted the body to advise his administration on space policy."
This Is What Legally Happens If An Uncontrolled Rocket Damages Something (planetary.org) "On April 29, China launched Tianhe—the core module for its new space station—on a Long March 5B rocket. Though the launch successfully sent Tianhe to its planned destination, the 30-meter-long (100 feet) core stage tumbled uncontrolled back to Earth. Space lawyers say there’s legal precedent for China to face consequences, but like anything in world politics, the reality is much, much messier."
The upper stage ultimately burned up over the Indian Ocean, causing no damage.
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
In a surprise move, NASA chose SpaceX's Starship as the sole winner of its 3 billion-dollar human lunar lander development contract. Within days, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed official protests, forcing NASA to delay the award. Casey and Mat discuss how this selection, if it stands, is a smart move for a space agency that is serious about a true "Moon-to-Mars" program. Should we stop thinking about SpaceX as a scrappy startup and instead treat it as the world's leading aerospace company?