It's been more than 50 years since humans last set foot on the lunar surface. But the recent success of NASA's Artemis I mission has put the US back on track to return man to the Moon. As the Artemis program proceeds, space enthusiasts remain skeptical of NASA's timeline and its expensive Space Launch System rocket — especially as the reusable SpaceX Starship rocket comes online. To find out more about the future for NASA as well as private companies like SpaceX, I'm joined today by Eric Berger.
Eric is the senior space editor at Ars Technica and author of 2021's excellent Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX.
In This Episode
When will the US return to the Moon? (1:19)
How SpaceX’s Starship will change the game (5:58)
Reusability and launch costs (12:04)
The future of America’s space program (15:59)
Is the window for Mars colonization closing? (24:13)
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
When will the US return to the Moon?
James Pethokoukis: I think you have one of the best journalism jobs in America. I hope you feel that way too.
Eric Berger: I have a fantastic job. I love space, I live and breathe it every day, and I get to write about what I think is really happening out there. It's pretty nice.
It's almost like someone who is covering the internet in the late ‘90s, when all of a sudden there's just so much happening. I remember you at year end recounting what happened in 2022, and it was a pretty long list of space achievements.
I first got into space more than 15 years ago, and at the time it was really pretty dull — not to downgrade the space shuttle program, but it was kind of dull. They would do six or seven launches a year, go up, work on the International Space Station, come down. Everything pretty much worked like clockwork. There just wasn't a whole lot happening. It's really accelerated and accelerated since then. And you just have so much happening in the United States commercially, abroad. It is just a very vibrant field. And as you say, it feels like we're in the early days of this space flight revolution.
When will the United States return to the Moon, and what is going to take us there?
We returned to the Moon last year, right? We sent an uncrewed spacecraft, Orion, around the Moon. That really was the first step back to the Moon. And I think probably in about two years from now, we'll send the first crewed mission up there. This was going to be a mission where they fly out to the Moon, loop around, and come back. So it's not like they're going to go to the surface or anything like that. But that will be the first people going into deep space in more than 50 years. And then we're going to have a lunar landing later this decade. I don't really feel comfortable putting a date out there. I think it's probably 2027, 2028 maybe. And most likely, they're going to launch on the Space Launch System rocket built by NASA and its contractors, and go up on Orion, and land on the Moon in a SpaceX Starship.
Is there a current official target date?
It's 2025, but that's completely unrealistic.
What hasn't happened to make a 2025 mission seem highly unlikely to you?
The first thing is they have got to do the crewed flight, the Artemis II mission, around the Moon. And we're probably 22 to 24 months away from that happening. They're not going to turn around then and do Artemis III the same year. And then you've got two other really important pieces to put together. SpaceX has to fly its Starship, it has to do a bunch of orbital refueling tests, then it has to actually go and land on the Moon and take off and show that everything's ready ahead of that lunar landing. And the other big piece of this is there's a private company in Houston, Axiom Space, that is building the space suits for Artemis III. These are the suits that will allow the crew to get out on the surface of the Moon, walk around and explore. And this company has never built a space suit before, and they just got the contract last fall. It's going to take time for Artemis II to happen, and everything has to go right there. There's a bunch of planning that has to go on, and then you've got to have the Starship and the space suit pieces come together.
Is there a chance that the rocket that ends up taking Americans to the surface will end up being a Starship rocket?
There is a chance. But at this point, I would think it's a fairly low one. The fact is, the Space Launch System rocket, which took a decade and billions and billions and billions of dollars to develop, finally did fly in November of last year. And by all accounts, the flight was flawless. It's pretty impressive for the debut launch of this rocket for it to perform as well as it did. I think NASA has pretty high confidence now in that launch vehicle. And it will have more confidence in Orion after the second mission. I do think that, initially, that's how we're going to get to the Moon. I think eventually that will change. It would not surprise me to see astronauts launching on, say, a Crew Dragon and rendezvousing with Starship and going to the Moon that way. Because the fact of the matter is, if you can do that, you don't need to spend the $3 or $4 billion every mission to go to the Moon on an SLS rocket and an Orion. You can do it with SpaceX vehicles for probably one-quarter of the cost.
How SpaceX’s Starship will change the game
Based on that cost structure that you mentioned, why are we even doing this? Why are we even using a rocket that may never fly again after that Moon mission, Artemis III? It just seems like a lot of wasted money. Why don't we just wait for Starship to get out the kinks, launch, and go that way?
That's a great question. The reality is that we built the SLS rocket because in 2010 there were two senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Bill Nelson of Florida, who were looking at the end of the space shuttle program and all the jobs in Florida and Texas that were bound up by that and said, “Well, we've got to have a replacement for this.” There were contractors who had been working on the space shuttle program, building the solid rocket boosters, the engines, and the structures and so forth saying, “Hey, we’ve got to preserve all these jobs.”
If you look at the Space Launch System rocket, it uses the same engines as the space shuttle. It uses very similar solid rocket boosters on the sides. And the diameter of that core stage is the same diameter as the external tank of the space shuttle. All of those jobs were essentially rolled from the space shuttle into the Space Launch System rocket. Now, at the time that decision was made, SpaceX had not launched a single Falcon 9 rocket, so I don't think there was the confidence in the private sector then that there is today. The fact of the matter is SLS will continue flying for as long, I think, as Starship is not shown to be a viable vehicle. Once Starship starts flying like the Falcon 9 rocket — which by the way flew 61 times last year — once it starts flying like that, there will be no need for a rocket that costs five or 10 times as much, is not reusable, and can only fly once a year. There'll be no need for that. But 1) it's a political thing. Lots of political support for that program. And 2) as of today, there is no viable alternative, even though we all know one is coming down the line.
What is the best estimate of the Starship launch agenda, launch tempo from here on out? Do we have a good idea of what that's going to look like?
I'm happy to make predictions with the proviso that they're going to be almost certainly wrong.
I do think we're getting closer to the first Starship orbital test flight. This is going to be a big moment. You're going to have a rocket with 33 very powerful Raptor engines taking off from south Texas. That's the first stage. And then the second stage is the Starship upper stage. It's going to go up and go briefly into orbit before it comes back down near Hawaii. That is going to prove that A) the rocket works. And I still think that's kind of a crapshoot because this is a rocket with 33 engines, it's never flown, we haven't seen these Raptor engines in space flight before. It's also very important to get data on bringing Starship back from orbit, if it does make it there. I think we'll see maybe two or three test flights this year. And then next year, maybe half a dozen test flights. And then perhaps in late 2024, 2025, we'll start to see some operational missions carrying Starlink. And also they'll start doing some fueling tests. One of the things that Starship has to do is … it's got enough fuel to get to orbit this massive vehicle — and it can carry like 100 tons to low-Earth orbit, and then it lands back on Earth — but to go anywhere, to go to the Moon, to go to Mars, or what have you, it needs to be refueled. And that's a technology we've never really demonstrated in space: the storage of these cryogenic propellants. Starship runs on liquid oxygen and liquid methane. And we've never shown the ability to store these propellants in space, because you have concerns like boil off. These propellant depots, if they're sitting in the sun, the temperature is much higher than is able to keep them at liquid temperatures. And then you've got to show you can transfer them from one vehicle to another. SpaceX will be doing those tests almost from the beginning of their Starship test program.
When I was a full-time journalist, I'm pretty sure that when I would use the word “game changer,” editors would hate that. They would strike that word out. But Starship seems like it would be, if all those “ifs” are solved, it would be kind of a game changer. It's a big rocket.
If you think about it, everyone remembers the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program, this massive launch vehicle. But all that came back to Earth was that tiny little capsule at the top. The first stage, second stage, third stage all fell into the ocean. The capsule came back, but then they were put in museums because they weren't reusable. The goal of Starship is for that whole stack to be reusable. So the first stage comes back, Starship comes back, and then you fly them again at some point. I think we're probably years and years away from those kinds of operations. But if and when SpaceX gets there, it does entirely change the paradigm of spaceflight that we've known since the late 1950s when Sputnik first went to orbit, which is now 65 years ago.
It's always been a premium on size — you want small vehicles that can fit on top of rockets in the payload fairings—and mass, because it costs so much to get to low-Earth orbit. If Starship works, it completely or almost completely removes those constraints: You can launch often, and it's got this huge payload fairing that you could fit elephants inside them, you could fit just massive structures inside of this thing. All of a sudden, the problem of scarcity, of getting stuff to orbit, no longer exists. It becomes not about the one thing we can do in orbit, but all the things we can do because it costs so much less to get there. And you can bring much larger structures.
Reusability and launch costs
Right now when we look at SpaceX, we're looking at partial reusability. What you’re talking about is the whole thing: everything you can use more than once.
Yeah. Right now with the Falcon 9 rocket, which I would submit is really a modern-day miracle, you're reusing the first stage, which is about 60 percent of the mass of the rocket. You get all those nine engines back, and they're now reflying relining those first stages 15 times. I think they're going to continue to push the limits. They're also getting back the payload fairing, which is that protective structure on top that then falls away once the rocket gets to orbit and the satellite comes out and pops out like a jack-in-the-box. That payload fairing costs like $5 or $6 million. So it's not insubstantial that they're collecting those, refurbishing them, and flying again. What is not reusable right now is the upper stage. It has a single Merlin vacuum engine, and those probably cost $10 to $12 million to manufacture. So that's a significant piece that they have to build. Every time they launch, they have to build a second stage.
An SLS launch versus a Starship launch where everything is reusable: Do we have a guess at the difference of each of those launches?
The cost difference? The NASA Inspector General has put a cost on a single SLS launch with an Orion spacecraft on, and it said that's $4.1 billion. That is exclusive of development costs, which for those vehicles are now about $40 billion. So if you just say, “Okay, we're going to ignore the fact that we spent all this money,” it's still $4.1 billion to launch one of these a year. Starship, we don't know how much it's going to cost. But if it's made out of stainless steel, and you're getting all those Raptor engines back, and you're flying each vehicle like 10 times or 20 times, the incremental cost of launch is going to be on the order of $100 million or less. So that's a 40x cost difference. Again, once Starship becomes operational. It's probably at least five years away from that point. But that's the future we're headed into. And it is coming. [If] you look at what's happened with the Falcon 9, they will get there. Or get close.
We talk a lot about the reusability of these rockets. Does SpaceX also just make them cheaper than competitors? Is that the only factor in the decline in launch costs?
Yes, they also have … Musk is pretty cutthroat on costs.
The whole Twitter experiment, right? He runs a tight ship. One of the very important things that SpaceX did, and a lot of the new space companies that have come afterward have tried to emulate, is they very much did vertical integration. And that just means that prior to 2000, the way you built your rocket in this country was, okay, you’re United Launch Alliance: You buy your engines from Aerojet, you buy your structures from someone, you buy your software from someone, you buy your payload fairing from RUAG, you buy your upper-stage engine from Aerojet. And then you sort of integrate that all together into your factory after paying a premium for all these different products. And you launch the rocket. You're the operator.
SpaceX came along and said, “No, no, we're going to build the engines. We're going to build as much of each of these rockets as we can in-house. And when we need to outsource some components, we will.” And a lot of these other companies that have come since, like Rocket Lab, have tried to do the same. Relativity Space is trying to additively manufacture, so 3D print, its entire rocket inside its factory. And so they've really changed the game. And that vertical integration has allowed them to control costs and move more quickly.
The future of America’s space program
After we land on the Moon via an SLS rocket and a SpaceX lander, is the American space program at that point government doing more science-y things and the private sector doing private sector things, whether it's, you know you know, orbiting space platforms. What does the Americas program comprehensively look like after that landing?
We don't really know. We're talking about something that's probably about four or five years in the future, and it's very difficult to say where we're headed.
I'm very glad, by the way, that you say four or five years in the future, not four or five decades. I like the fact that we keep talking years, single digits.
After the success of Artemis I, we are definitively on the way back to the Moon. This is a great time in US space policy. It's healthier than I've ever seen it, I think, in my lifetime or certainly since I've been covering this. The NASA and United States space program has problems, has difficulties, has challenges, but we are on a healthy trajectory, I think. So we can all feel good about that. It's just going to take a little longer than I think any of us would like. But the way NASA has been going, and I don't see this trend changing, is it wants to be a customer and not the customer. It is looking to buy services from companies rather than top-down build processes.
The SLS rocket was procured through a cost-plus program where NASA designed the rocket, its engineers were side by side with the contractors at Boeing and elsewhere. And it costs a lot. It takes a long time. And NASA oversees every step of the process, and it's the only customer. No one else wants to fly in the SLS rocket. The military doesn't. Private customers don't because it costs way too much. NASA’s science program doesn't want to use it. NASA would rather be a customer. SpaceX launched 60 Falcon 9 rockets last year. NASA bought like six or seven of them, and the rest of them were other customers and SpaceX’s Starlink missions. It's buying services, like this spacesuit contract it's giving to Axiom and to another company: It's basically leasing spacesuits. And the lander, it's like buying the landing service on the Moon.
It's going to private space stations next decade, and it's buying time on those space stations. It’s not going to own those space stations. NASA wants to procure services. NASA would like to see an ecosystem where it is one customer for activity on the Moon alongside maybe the European Space Agency or private companies or Hilton Hotels, I don't know. They sort of want to be one customer in that area. I think the question in my mind is, will there be more entities that want to get involved in human space flight or exploration of the Moon? Or will this be a NASA-led program for a long time, simply because it's so expensive and there's not that much there for people to do beyond collecting rocks and doing science experiments for NASA? And that's the question I don't think we've answered. It may be NASA for a long time, unless you do really get vehicles like Starship or Blue Origin’s New Glenn that come alo
ng and really do bring down the costs of transportation to and from the Moon.
How far behind is Blue Origin?
Very far behind. They were founded before SpaceX was, and they still haven't put anyone in orbit. They just move slowly. That's kind of Jeff Bezos' philosophy in space fight. He wants to go very methodically. I don't think their CEO, a guy named Bob Smith, has been particularly dynamic in terms of getting them moving forward quickly. But if they ever do get their act together, they have a large and talented team of engineers. They could really kick some butt in this field. But they're way behind SpaceX in terms of building rockets. The New Glenn rocket probably doesn't launch for at least two years. That's a massive vehicle, but then they're going to have to go through some growing pains. And it's going to take a while. I don't think New Glenn will ever be able to catch up to Starship.
I’m interested in there being a permanent Moon base. Would that be operated by NASA? Would that be operated by somebody else?
That's a great question. I think NASA would love for Lockheed, or I don't know who, to say, “We are going to build a lunar surface station.” And NASA says, “Great, we want to buy 50 percent of the capacity. And we'll give you $2 billion a year for that service.” The question is whether any private company is going to step up and do something as audacious as that. That's one of the real ways in which SpaceX has changed the game: They have sort of stepped forward with these audacious visions. And then NASA has kind of come in and bought. When SpaceX created Starship, NASA wasn't interested. NASA wasn't a customer. And now, look, they're giving them $3 billion to land on the Moon twice. I think if you had a big enough vision to do that, then you could get NASA to come on board. The problem is, if you're a publicly traded company — it's really hard for a company other than SpaceX or Blue Origin, which have these well-endowed founders — it's really hard to convince your board of directors to go along with something like that.
How many space stations will there be in orbit by the end of this decade?
It’s just all fluid. So the International Space Station comes down in 2030. That's down. China's Space Station is still flying, I think, Tiangong. And Russia is talking about a space station, but I don't think there's any way they have a replacement up by then. So then the question becomes, there are four different companies trying to build commercial space stations for NASA. And again, NASA has given them some money for development, but they're not paying for the stations. They ultimately want to be customers on them. And of those four, one is Blue Origin led by them, one is Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin, another is Axiom Space, and then a fourth is Northrop Grumman. I would put the over-under at one-and-a-half of those. And I think NASA is very happy if one was demonstrative functionable by 2030.
The skeptics will say, “Okay, so what are we going to do in those space stations? Some science?” How satisfying is the answer, “We don't know what we're going to do; we have to get there and figure it out — who knew what the internet was going to look like in 1990 versus what it looks like today”?
I think you've got to build it and see if people will come. NASA is going to continue to do scientific research, human research, astronauts living in space for long durations. But then you've got to see how much interest there is in sports or filming movies or holidays or from other countries like UAE who want to have their own astronauts up there doing research or from private astronauts. For about two years now, we've had the capability to put astronauts in a low-Earth orbit on private space missions. SpaceX has that capability. There's been some interest, but there hasn't been an overwhelming amount of interest. And so the jury is very much out on commercial potential. And I think the only real way to answer that question is when someone figures out how to make money by having people living and working and doing things in space, then that market explodes. And until that happens, it's very tenuous.
Is the window for Mars colonization closing?
I am very excited about the notion of going to Mars and humans permanently living on Mars. Is that a 2030s thing? A 2040s, a 2070s thing?
The way I would look at it is, that kind of thing is never happening without the private sector, because there is no reason at all, no good reason, for NASA to send people to Mars. The amount of science that can be done by rovers at one-100th the cost without having to worry about safety issues. The rovers can do a lot of science. They can't do it all. There are some things humans can do better and faster, but it's just not worth it to send people there. Maybe if it's like a US-China-Russia-Japan pan-worldwide mission to promote peace and go to Mars. I could see something like that. But there's just no good reason for NASA to send humans to Mars.
They will talk about it. They will say, “We're going to the Moon and Mars.” But NASA's not going to Mars before 2050, and probably not by then. So then the question becomes, is SpaceX sincere about going to Mars? Yes. Do they have the wherewithal to work together with NASA to send human missions to Mars? Not right now. But if Starlink, this internet from space, is a successful business — and there are some signs that it will be, and some signs that, no, they have a long way to go — but if that is a success, then the plan is for SpaceX to use that money to help finance Starship and take steps to building some kind of settlement on Mars. And I think if SpaceX can build a credible transportation system to Mars, then NASA comes along for those first couple of missions because there are lots of reasons for them to want to go. And there are lots of reasons for SpaceX to want NASA to go. Most notably, probably, just it clears the regulatory hurdles away for them. If it's going to happen before 2050, it would be a public-private partnership with SpaceX leading the way in terms of the vision.
It's sort of amazing how much of this seems to depend on the interest and will of one person: Elon Musk.
It’s true. If you look at the space industry today, SpaceX dominates it. They launched more rockets than all the other companies in the United States by like a factor of three, two or three. They equaled China in terms of launch output. They're one of three entities in the world that has the capability to put humans into orbit. They operate more satellites than any company or country in the world. They're building the world's largest and most powerful rocket. They are kind of at the forefront of all these areas. And they're the ones pushing and pushing. If you take SpaceX out of the equation, then NASA's Moon program looks an awful lot like Apollo, which was not sustainable. A lot of it does hinge on the success of SpaceX and their ability to push and pull this commercial space flight initiative forward. And hopefully, by lowering the cost of access to space, you can find ways to make money in space, which in turn fuels more commercial space flight activity.
Have you watched the TV show For All Mankind?
I have, yes.
Do you enjoy that television program?
Yeah. It's an interesting take on the future that's really well done.
I think Elon Musk may have said that at that SpaceX event where they showed that fantastic video, which I've used about 30 times in my newsletter, where he said the window is open but it might not be open forever, to do what we're doing. Do you think he's wrong? Do you think it is permanently open because of the advances, because of declining costs, because of the geopolitical competition from China and from other nations? Is the space window open, and it's going to just stay open?
I don't know if it's going to stay open. He's concerned that it won't stay open. And one of the reasons that he would've cited a couple years ago is this era of cheap money ending. And that era of cheap money has ended. This is going to have a profound impact on a lot of the commercial space companies that have started up over the last five to 10 years. A lot of those are not going to survive the next few years. Congress is talking about holding budgets flat, and that probably may impair space flight activity as well. That's one area of, is this funding opportunity window going to be open long enough for it to happen? And he's also worried about existential threats to humanity. Whether any of those really come up in the next five to 10 years or 50 years, I don't know. But we're a little closer to nuclear war than we were 12 months ago.
If there's an accident, another Challenger or another Columbia, do you think we're into this enough and there's been enough progress that we'll push forward? Or will we retreat?
It's a great question. I think about that a lot because if, God forbid, something happens with the Crew Dragon spacecraft or the Falcon 9 rocket with people on board and NASAs astronauts die, that really would bring out the critics of SpaceX who have been awfully quiet in the last few years. Think about it, the only way we're getting to space right now with people is on the Falcon 9 rocket. And imagine if we'd had these last 10 months or 11 months of tensions with Russian and still had to rely on them to get our people into space. A lot of the critics of SpaceX have kind of shut up because it's clear that they have done such a service for this country.
But if they have some major accent, then all those questions come again. He is reckless. Elon self-sabotages himself a lot in that regard. The way he acts on Twitter sometimes is pretty unserious. And officials at the DOD and NASA see that. That would embolden critics to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why are we giving SpaceX all this money if they're not acting responsibly?” And especially if the accident was caused by some negligent act on SpaceX, trying to move too fast or save money or something like that. I don't think an accident like that will happen. NASA and SpaceX work very diligently to ensure it doesn't happen. But I do think that would be a setback, whether it would be an absolute killer, I don't think so, because I suspect NASA would stand by SpaceX regardless. They're very good about that when their contractors have an accident. NASA sort of stands by them and goes through the accident investigation and so forth. But if you put people’s lives at risk, then that may change. It's a great question, and I hope we don't have to find an answer to it.