The Stark Politics of SpaceX’s Starship
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Hours before the unveiling of SpaceX’s Starship rocket prototype, a groundbreaking Saturn-V-sized fully reusable rocket, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter and made a statement that shocked much of the space community. He called on SpaceX to show the same “enthusiasm” for its Dragon spacecraft, a delayed NASA-funded capsule that ferries crew to and from the International Space Station.
The statement caught the space community off guard, who were quick to point out the apparent hypocrisy of publicly shaming SpaceX while failing to call out its Commercial Crew rival Boeing, whose own craft faced far worse delays. Others noted that NASA’s SLS rocket program, also led by Boeing, was far further behind schedule and over budget, with nary a peep from NASA.
The tweet underscored the continued battle between what many call “old-space,” or longstanding government contractor heavyweights, and with “new-space,” nimble new competitors like SpaceX. But it is also a lesson in the dangers of government contracting and extractive misallocation of resources.
The SLS rocket, which first flew in 2022, was many years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, and many times more expensive to fly than originally projected. It embodies everything that is wrong with “old space” and government contracting. Part of its inflated cost is due to the SLS being based on hardware developed in the 1970s with little innovation.
The reason for using dated hardware is not technical, it’s political. During the rocket’s development, manufacturers of engines, fuel tanks, and avionics, lobbied Congress to ensure that their legacy parts were used in the project. Congressmen…