New Glenn, Falcon Heavy or Starship to the Moon?
If you are interested, I have written a more elaborate take on New Glenn in this story about the different visions of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
There are a couple of reasons I did not cover New Glenn is this particular story:
- New Glenn is not a fully reusable rocket like Starship and is thus not as interesting with respect to radical reduction in price of exploring the moon.
- Both New Glenn and Starship both represent uncertainty. Both have slipped behind original schedule. Falcon Heavy in contrast already exists and has successfully flown twice. Thus it has a proven track record.
The story was not really about how I think we ought to explore the moon. It likely makes most sense if NASA completely ditched SLS and shifted all their funding over to Starship. It offers a much cheaper future for moon exploration.
But that is an ideal unrealistic world. It will be hard to convince management and NASA management that Starship will actually be a real thing. The whole point of bringing up Falcon Heavy, is that it is real thing nobody can deny. NASA and politicians have to contend with the fact that SLS is still not done, and we have no idea when it will be. While we do know Falcon Heavy exists. We do know it gives really cheap launches.
Thus in the context of dealing with risk averse NASA management and politicians, Falcon Heavy is a very useful rocket to highlight. We can show that there is a way Falcon Heavy can be used to visit the moon in a cheap way.
But I don’t see demonstrating that as necessarily a way to get Falcon Heavy into the game, but rather as a way of killing SLS.
Is Starship or New Glenn More Realistic?
You raised an interesting question I have been struggling to decide on, which is who will deliver the next rocket first? Blue Origin or SpaceX. In theory it seems more realistic that New Glenn will be finished first It is a less radical design:
- BO is using aluminium body which is well established.
- Second stage is not reusable. This is already a proven concept.
- BO has deep pockets. SpaceX seem to have more issues with their funding.
- They are using a far less radical engine design.
But if there is one thing we should have learned over the years, it is that betting against Elon Musk is a bad idea. It used to seem a sure bet that Blue Origin would finish the BE-4 engine way before SpaceX would finish the Raptor engine. BE-4 set far more moderate and realistic goals. Raptor in contrast was a crazy ambitious engine, with a cycle nobody has ever managed to pull off.
Yet here we are. Blue Origin is not really done with their BE-4, while SpaceX basically has a working Raptor engine with impressive performance characteristics. They have already hot fired it on a tethered version of Starship. They will soon test it on an unthethered Starship model.
What we are seeing is that SpaceX is moving ahead at a frantic pace pulling off feats nobody has done before in impressive time. There seems to be something fundamentally faster about how they work.
My guess it is the agressive iterative and pragmatic approach. SpaceX unlike the rest of the industry (to my knowledge anyway) use rapid prototyping extensively. They build working versions and test them. They are far more hands on. They get hardware built with whatever means necessary and start trying out things. Starship hull is built by a company that builds water towers. You see how both Tesla and SpaceX have no issues with breaking conventions. Look at how they build stuff in tents.
Blue Origin seems to be much more about working out things on the drawing board like old space. That means by the time they build New Glenn at full scale, they may discover issues they had not anticipated.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the New Glenn looks like an awesome rocket, and I hope Blue Origin succeeds. More options is better in my humble opinion. Especially since there is a certain chance that SpaceX overstreches and implodes. I view Blue Origin as the backup plan if Elon Musk screws up.