Musk’s Amped-Up Timetable for Mars Spaceship Contrasts With Delays for NASA Capsules

par Featured articles licensed from The Wall Street Journal | le 30 September 2019

SpaceX chief raises possibility of first orbital test flight of supersize Mars vehicle next year


By Andy Pasztor – The Wall Street Journal


Space entrepreneur Elon Musk has stoked excitement about accelerated development of private deep-space vehicles—while provoking consternation inside NASA—by projecting his proposed megarocket targeting Mars could take humans on an orbital test flight as soon as next year.

Mr. Musk’s announcement over the weekend, made with his typical showmanship, sketched out a superambitious timetable for building and testing a privately funded, behemoth rocket intended to take people to the moon and eventually to Mars. But even before details emerged, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appeared to publicly rebuke Mr. Musk for extensive delays on a technically less-ambitious federal effort, much closer to Earth, aimed at transporting U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station.

Mr. Musk’s Mars-oriented project includes a stainless-steel rocket, called Starship, reaching some 40 stories tall when mated with a booster and featuring fins at the nose as well as near the engine nozzles at the bottom. The design, including in-space refueling capabilities, is an evolution of preliminary versions Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, has unveiled in recent years, with more specifics on timing. The shifting engineering features have captivated space aficionados and prompted skepticism among some critics.

On Saturday, Mr. Musk laid out a rapid timetable, sped up from his earlier projections and faster than any major space endeavor in memory. The hurry-up approach, which at one point even Mr. Musk told reporters was akin to “stream-of-consciousness” mode, is particularly unusual considering the multibillion-dollar project hasn’t yet flown a single full-scale prototype and its engineers haven’t publicly disclosed what type of life-support systems they will employ.

Over the years, both supporters and critics have acknowledged Mr. Musk’s time lines often are intended more as tools to push employees and managers than firm or reliable deadlines.

This time, however, the purported timetable elicited an uncharacteristically sharp response from James Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, one of SpaceX’s biggest customers. Before the SpaceX event for media and employees at its Texas facility, Mr. Bridenstine said in a message on Twitter that he was looking forward to the announcement. “In the meantime,” the NASA chief said SpaceX’s commercial-crew capsule to take astronauts to the orbiting international laboratory “is years behind schedule” and “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the taxpayers.”

Mr. Bridenstine added: “It’s time to deliver.”

SpaceX’s human-rated Dragon capsule is expected to go into service in 2020—more than three years behind schedule—but potentially barely months ahead of Starship’s possible initial orbital test mission with a crew. In the face of engineering delays and test accidents, NASA’s leaders have stopped publicly projecting when SpaceX or Boeing Co. , the other contractor building a separate fleet of orbital crew capsules for NASA, will start transporting astronauts.

Starship will require a family of entirely new engines, new production systems and test protocols. The early design was unveiled three years ago.

Despite his latest announcement, Mr. Musk seemingly sought to reassure Mr. Bridenstine about SpaceX’s commitment to NASA. During a freewheeling presentation and subsequent question-and-answer session, SpaceX’s founder, chairman and chief designer said the company has earmarked the vast majority of its efforts delivering on existing programs, especially the agency’s crewed capsule. He said management has devoted less than 5% of SpaceX’s resources to developing Starship and its booster.