The science journalist and popularizer of cosmonautics Mikhail Kotov reflects on projects that change the rules of the game, the future of astronautics and the flagship project of Elon Musk in space – the Starship project.
… Game changer is one of my favorite terms that do not have a correct translation into Russian. A game changer is something that completely changes the situation on the field, calling into question the rules by which the game was played up to this point. The simplest example is a pawn that reaches the eighth rank and becomes a queen. Here is the same game changer that radically changes the situation on the battlefield.
There are also enough examples of game changers in life – an iPhone that has completely plowed the lovingly cultivated field of smartphones. The problem is that, seeing a game changer itself, people (journalists, experts) very often overestimate its influence on other players or cannot estimate how long its influence will be. Or they call something that is not, in fact, a game changer.
Examples? Yes, the same Tesla – the first electric car with steady demand, which began to form the electric car trend. Great piece, who argues. However, if you go back in time and read the articles of experts, you will see that a lot of people wrote something like “Tesla is entering the market, the world is changing dramatically, auto giants are crying and going bankrupt in the coming years.” Tesla came out, it is successful, there is a trend, but before the ruin of auto giants or the transition of the whole world to electric cars, there are still years, or even decades. And the auto giants are still in place, and none of them is running with a changed face to the pond.
Another, albeit not so striking example is Crew Dragon. Last year, I read dozens of columns that Crew Dragon is the death of Roscosmos, that now no one will fly on Soyuz, and the whole world will be dissected by dragons. A year has passed, Crew Dragon is beautiful and white, but Roskosmos is still standing and will be standing. However, talking about Crew Dragon is no longer fashionable, now we have a new trend – Starship, it will change everything, state corporations will crumble, and astronautics will never be the same.
Do you want to try to imagine the future with Starship? If you don’t like it, you can just go silently and imagine your future with Hold’em poker and the ladies. So, the year is 2025.
Musk finalized Starship at the end of 2023. As a result, it turned out that it can put not 140, but 120 tons into low-earth orbit (LEO), but these are trifles. And it turned out to be possible to lower to Earth on it a much smaller load, but still a lot, much more than modern ships can. NASA screamed and prepares for lunar missions, Elon Musk sculpts a version of a spacecraft for flying around Mars and calculates how much oxygen, water and food should be put there per astronaut. So far, it really turns out a lot – a year and a half on the road, this is not a joke.
And what about astronautics? Well, yes, Musk finished the Starlink project and along the way brought out the remnants of commercial orders, of which there were not so many left. New orders? Everything is controversial here – most often you need to put into a specific orbit, and chasing Starship for the sake of a pair of satellites is simply stupid, so they still use small rockets. Space construction has not yet appeared, and it is not a fact that it will appear in the near future.
Suborbital flights? For passengers, Starship has very large overloads – people can only be taken on board after a lengthy medical examination, and long preparation eats up all the gain in time. For cargo flights, the situation is even less rosy – there are practically no cargoes that could not wait for several hours of flight and would require instant delivery. The issue of dimensions is also not worth it – An-124 and Mriya are more convenient for loading, and, of course, much, much cheaper.
And then a strange thing comes out. For LEO, Starship turns out to be oversized in many ways, it is too expensive for transportation within the planet – the military, of course, are looking closely at it, but the idea of lowering tanks from the height of a twenty-story building does not please them. The world continues to launch rockets, as it did. ESA, CNSA and Roskosmos continue to work. Starship can become an unconditional game changer, but only on flights to the Moon or further. Little will change in space exploration in low-orbit orbits.
I do not like? Well, come up with your future.