Sunset is an interesting benchmark for our human brains. While our lives are run by clocks these days, most of the measures that we’ve created to mark the passing of time hae something to do with astronomical events and values. 24 hours to a day. 12 hours (sort of) of day and 12 hours (sort of) of night. 28 days to a lunar cycle. The starting dates for the four seasons. 365 days (sort of) to a year.
Sunset is often a time to think back on the day that’s ending and look forward to the day that’s starting with sunrise. That looking forward, that foreboding, that anticipation is weighing on me tonight.
Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, about 08:00 CDT (13:00 UTC, 06:00 PDT) we may see the first launch of SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft. And that could be a HUGE next step to make tomorrow’s world significantly different that tonight’s.
In tonight’s sunset sky, up in the upper right, is Venus. Let’s take it as an example.
Right now there are no spacecraft orbiting it or exploring it. We have had an orbiter there and it gave us a treasure trove of data. The US has never put a robot spacecraft on Venus’s surface, although the Russians have. However, due to the hellscape of monstrous atmospheric pressure and heat, those probes only sent back a handful of pictures and data, surviving only a couple of minutes.
There are proposals and new projects on the US slate. But with the current state of human launch capabilities, interplanetary probes are rare and expensive. Every gram of weight is incredibly precious, so spacecraft have to be optimized as much as possible, which means they’re expensive to design and expensive to design. And researchers and engineers typically get one chance to get it right, so everything has to be perfect.
In this case, sending something to Venus, even to do a limited set of tasks or carry a set of a dozen or so instruments and experiments, is something that happens every couple of decades and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.
Because it’s so expensive to launch. Because launch capabilities are so limited.
What if those restrictions were gone?
SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be reuseable the way that a 747 is reuseable. If every 747 took one flight and then was destroyed, flying on an commercial aircraft would be incredibly expensive and rare. But a 747, while costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build, has a lifetime of thousands of flights, usually several a day. So Boeing doesn’t build one from start to finish and then start on the next one – they rolled one off of the assembly line every couple of days, dozens a month, hundreds a year. And they all fly almost constantly, so it’s cheap enough to use them to bring planeloads of bananas from Central America and winter apples from Chili and FedEx packages from all over the world so that you and I could have those things the next day.
Let’s do that space.
If SpaceX builds Starships to fly dozens, hundreds, thousands of flights and builds hundreds and thousands of them and can launch each one multiple times a week, let alone multiple times per day, then getting into low Earth orbit (LEO) gets dirt cheap by today’s standards.
And if THAT happens, and you want to explore Venus, you don’t need to build billion dollar spacecraft that are relatively tiny and perfect with a limited suite of instruments. You can build a dozen, a hundred, a thousand spacecraft for a couple hundred thousand dollars each and flood Venus with orbiters, landers, rovers, balloons – whatever you can think of. And when you learn critical things from the first few, then you build better and cheaper and more capable spacecraft in the second round. It’s a positive feedback loop.
Do I expect Starship to launch tomorrow? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few tries and a few days. No one’s ever done this before and rockets are hard.
When they do launch, do I expect the first mission to go perfectly? Probably not. Remember, rockets are hard! But do I expect them to figure it out and keep trying and succeed in a few months? Yes, no doubt.
For our example, do I expect to have a hundred spacecraft in and around Venus in two years, or five years? No, obviously not. In ten years? Not a hundred, but maybe a handful, ideas that are just proposals now, fighting amongst each other to get that one golden ring from NASA for that one-in-a-decade slot. In twenty or twenty-five years? No doubt.
Tonight, at sunset, I look at Venus and there’s no way to scatter the planet with orbiters and landers and rovers and blimps.
Tomorrow, at sunset, we might be a LOT closer to the day that we can. And that day might be well in my lifetime.
Good luck tomorrow, Starship!