Starship struck a blow for private enterprise

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Summary

The fiery end of SpaceX’s latest rocket highlighted how private guts are best placed for glory in frontier pursuits. But rules must be enforced in this sector and monopolies held in check

Did we see a powerful rocket blow up or a spectacular advertisement for private enterprise? On 20 April, SpaceX’s Starship survived barely four minutes off its launch pad in America before it exploded some 40km above the Gulf of Mexico. The spaceship failed to dislodge its booster, a huge 69-metre-long cylinder that was left vestigial by fuel burnt in the heave of its lift-off. SpaceX called the explosion a “rapid unscheduled disassembly," and if it was met with sullen faces at mission control, they were kept well hidden. Its owner Elon Musk congratulated his team for “an exciting test launch" and said much had been learnt for another try in a few months. It was not a move-on shrug, but an exultant pep talk. “I don’t want to jinx it," he emailed employees, “but I think we are highly likely to reach orbit this year and recover the booster and ship, if not this year, certainly next year. Mars, here we come!" This may just be Musk being his usual feisty self. And how he behaves doesn’t exactly typify the private sector. Even so, the fiery risk-return trajectory he seems bent on would make the public sector of any democracy balk.

SpaceX’s test did check a few boxes on key aspects that justify high-fives. As a scale enlarger, its Super Heavy booster had the thrust needed to get its bulk off the planet. It even got past the ‘max Q’ point at which air resistance and the strain of its exertions peak. The spacecraft at its tip, Starship, was expected to snap off, firing its own engines to reach orbit. This part came a cropper. Launch-pad frailties may have been exposed too. Yet, it was valuable for the hot trail of data it gave SpaceX to work on for its next shot. For payloads of 100-tonnes plus to be hauled cheaply into space (the promise of this project), it has to be ready for false starts. Let alone setting camp on Mars someday, even its moonshot in alliance with US space agency Nasa (Artemis 3) looks riddled with ifs and buts—and faced with likely duds. For rockets to be reused and cost thereby saved, Musk’s company still needs to crack the retrieval of these bulky cylinders; and for leaps to be made between earthly and lunar orbits, it must also try out orbital refuelling. Like ‘andgates’ of logic, a vast array of bits must light up in unison to achieve its lofty ambitions. It calls for big funds to gamble and steely nerves to stare down risks. Both are easier to summon for a wealthy boss who answers chiefly to himself than a government that must explain itself to people. Nasa never got over its jitters on the safety of space shuttles, creating a vacuum for private players. Similarly, India’s state agency Isro, whose PSLV just placed two sub-1-tonne satellites in orbit, can hardly be faulted for its lunar caution after its 2019 landing mishap.

As an enterprise full of hits and misses, the pushing of frontiers is best left to entrepreneurs. By policy, India has begun to give up its state monopoly in the space sector. Perhaps we can also expect private trailblazers to emerge at some point. By the US example, closely held companies led by decisive people with high autonomy would seem like worthy bets. Yet, we must also watch out for any monopoly that may arise behind a cloak of opacity enjoyed by private operators. Globally, strict rules must apply to all. No nukes in space, for example. The risk of regulatory capture must be minimized. Done ethically, private rivalry could catapult the reach of our species. Slip up, and a reckless race in space could spell our doom.

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