On 27 May, NASA will launch people into space from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis roared aloft on its final voyage. This time, astronauts will be riding to the International Space Station (ISS) not on a NASA rocket, but aboard vehicles bought from the private space company SpaceX: the Dragon 2 capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
The occasion marks yet another milestone for the private California company, which over the past decade has gone from underdog to dominator. SpaceX now handles about two-thirds of NASA’s launches, including many research payloads, with flights as cheap as $62 million, roughly two-thirds the price of a rocket from United Launch Alliance, a competitor. SpaceX’s goals are not limited to low-Earth orbit: Last month it was selected to design a Moon lander, and it is steadily testing a huge heavy-lift rocket, called Starship, that could carry people to Mars.
Researchers see both benefits and risks in the company’s increasing power. It has lowered the cost of spaceflight through innovations such as reusable stages and fairings, saving NASA money. With its outsize capacity, Starship could cheaply put large telescopes in orbit and heavy science experiments on moons and planets. Yet SpaceX, with a fast-and-loose Silicon Valley mindset, has overlooked the potential for its technologies to contaminate night skies and pristine planets. Some worry the company, led by brazen billionaire Elon Musk, could jeopardize NASA’s long-standing culture of safety. “NASA tries to model everything to the nth degree,” says David Todd, an analyst at Seradata, which tracks launches and satellites. “SpaceX works on the basis of ‘test it until it breaks.’”
Between 2006 and 2008, the first three flights of its Falcon 1 rocket ended in failure. SpaceX pivoted to a larger Falcon 9 rocket in 2010, and began to deliver cargo to the ISS for NASA 2 years later. Since then, its ambitions have grown. “A lot of other space companies are trying to win contracts,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “SpaceX is trying to get to Mars. It turns out that having a goal can be economically successful.”
The upcoming crewed flight could displace the Russian rockets NASA has hired—at a hefty price—to carry humans to the ISS since 2011. Cheaper, more frequent flights could improve the biomedical and physical science experiments aboard the station, says industry analyst Laura Forczyk, owner of the space consulting firm Astralytical. “More people equals more research,” she says.
SpaceX has boosted NASA science in other ways, delivering the climate-observing Jason-3 satellite and the planet-seeking Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to orbit. In 2022, it is set to launch the Psyche mission to a metallic asteroid, in the first NASA launch of a Falcon Heavy, which sits between the Falcon 9 and Starship in its propulsive power.
But it’s the company’s upcoming Starship that has designers of science missions salivating. SpaceX has not announced a date for an inaugural flight, but has built six prototypes at a pace of nearly one per month. (Three have been accidentally destroyed in testing.) The steel alloy spacecraft and its superheavy booster stand 120 meters tall, towering over the Saturn V that carried people to the Moon. Last year, Musk said full reusability and thrifty use of propellant would drop the cost of each Starship launch to $2 million. Todd suggests $10 million per flight might be more realistic.
The rocket’s 9-meter-diameter cargo hold could easily accommodate giant celestial observatories, such as the proposed Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, which would directly image distant planets. One reason for the endless delays afflicting the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, has been the need to fold up its segmented 6.5-meter mirror to fit aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket, says CfA astrophysicist Martin Elvis.
A viable Starship could also create political pressure to scupper the Space Launch System (SLS), the NASA-developed heavy-lift rocket that is supposed to power the agency back to the Moon and on to Mars. In December 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it could cost $900 million per launch—if it ever launches. Its debut has repeatedly slipped, and is now expected at the end of 2021. Just 1 or 2 years later, it is supposed to carry astronauts to lunar orbit, but McDowell doubts it will remain in production for very long. “If Starship works, that’s the death knell for SLS,” he says. SpaceX, along with private companies Blue Origin and Dynetics, was chosen in April to design lunar landers for astronauts and supplies.
SpaceX put forth the Starship spacecraft as its lander, which could launch atop its own booster or a NASA-built one. There would be plenty of room for scientists to piggyback experiments, such as a radio telescope to peer back to the earliest era of galaxy formation from the Moon’s far side, says Steve Clarke, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for scientific exploration.
Yet SpaceX’s haste to go big could also cause trouble for scientists. The Starship lander will be much heavier than the spindly lunar module of the Apollo missions. The dust and rocks it kicks up could rise into lunar orbit, creating an interfering haze for other landers and threatening satellites and outposts, Elvis says. The company’s long-standing goal to colonize Mars has the potential to contaminate the planet with terrestrial microbes that could confound researchers, he adds. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In recent months, the company has aroused the ire of astronomers with the launch of hundreds of Starlink satellites, which are intended to deliver high-speed internet to remote areas. From the ground, the satellites appear surprisingly bright because of their low orbits, and they have left disruptive trails on the cameras of survey telescopes. “I don’t think they intended to screw up people’s skies,” says Megan Donahue, president of the American Astronomical Society. “It was just because nobody asked that question of them.”
SpaceX is trying to mitigate the issue. Some satellites in the next batch, set to launch soon after the crewed test, will be blackened and equipped with visors that block sunlight. Donahue praises the company for working with researchers to address the problems. “We’re all into science,” she says.
But the episode has reminded space scientists not to underestimate SpaceX’s potential impacts on their fields. Although Musk is often too bullish about the time scales for his projects, McDowell says, he tends to realize his dreams in the end. “[Musk] has strengths and weaknesses. His overoptimism is kind of both.”
*Correction, 21 May, 11:30 a.m.: An earlier version of the story misattributed a cost estimate to fly Starship. The source of the estimate is David Todd, not Laura Forczyk. The story has also been changed to more accurately compare the price of a Falcon 9 and to clarify the nature of SpaceX’s lunar lander award, the description of Starship, and the source of a cost estimate for the SLS.