This is a linkpost for https://www.mattbell.us/reflections-from-seeing-the-starship-launch-firsthand/
- Seeing Starship on the launch pad close up is a monumental yet somehow very personal experience. It's a remarkably intimate setting at the edge of a beach, with no fence or KEEP OUT signs between you and the largest rocket ever built. It's more of a feeling of "if you came this far, you probably respect what we're doing, and hey, this is Texas, so respect the significance of purple-capped property boundary posts"
- Pre-launch, the immense weight of the rocket is unmistakable. It seems impossible that such a monolith could declare itself no longer subject to the restraints of gravity and fly off. And yet it did, and Newton's third law meant the downward force of the exhaust was equivalently monumental. It's thus no surprise that the exhaust managed to punch a 20+ foot hole through the concrete into the ground under the rocket.
- It's hard to imagine that SpaceX engineers didn't think the rocket would wreck its own launchpad. There's no pit under the rocket to accommodate and redirect the thrust, and no pool of water to absorb the thermal energy. I have a theory that someone (probably Elon) decided it was more important to get a full integration test of the rocket ASAP than it was to leave the launch pad undamaged, and a room full of project managers squinted at Gantt charts and realized that maybe this wasn't crazy. That said, the "after" photo of the launch pad seems to suggest that a lot of concrete was forcibly ejected, and it wouldn't surprise me if some of it hit the rocket and damaged some of the engines on liftoff, possibly causing the rocket to eventually fail.
- The concept of a single, eventually reusable, vehicle that can put 150 tons in orbit is particularly compelling. It means that we could quickly assemble ISS-scale space stations on a corporate or even a very wealthy individual's budget, or start putting human-dwelling-scale infrastructure on the moon. Space stations could be more spacious as well -- the form factor of the Starship payload allows for much larger pieces of fixed hardware to be lifted. Starship also could enable moving significant amounts of mass around the solar system, which means that projects such as asteroid mining start to become more feasible. We might start to see second-order effects and feedback loops, where cheaper launches enable more space infrastructure, which enables a lower-cost higher-volume supply chain for space hardware, which enables cheaper launches.
- TIL that space fans exist. Sure, you might be intellectually and emotionally enthusiastic about space, but there are people who reorient their whole lives around following rocket launches -- traveling to see every launch, buying t-shirts and baseball caps, flaunting their encyclopedic knowledge of space trivia, and hanging around all day around the launch site with their tailgate BBQ because it's the place to be. Despite the deep cultural divide between sports fans and space fans, there are way too many parallels for it not to be driven by the same deep-seated need to belong to a movement.
- One space fan mentioned he was surprised that we had heard of Starship and had come out to see it. He said the crowds were particularly small here, and there was a much bigger crowd for the Artemis mission. Apparently I live in a SpaceX-adjacent techno-optimist bubble.
- The experience of the launch didn't feel viscerally monumental in the same way as a solar eclipse. Instead it was more strange and subtle, like seeing the Aurora Borealis combined with a distant thunderstorm. The meaningfulness of the experience came from its era-defining nature, from witnessing a step function change in humanity’s ability to expand beyond the confines of Earth.
- Everything is politicized these days. Elon has become a particularly polarizing figure, mostly due to his own completely unnecessary deliberate actions to stoke polarization. It’s very unfortunate as things that should be universally lauded, such as space exploration and electric vehicles, have become mapped onto these polarizations. People have sorted into rabidly pro-Elon and rabidly anti-Elon camps in a manner reminiscent of identity politics. The reality of his impact is on the world is more complicated. It's clear the space industry would not be where it is today without him being willing to gamble his sizable personal fortune into something that at the time seemed deeply improbable. This is partially true for the electric car market as well, though competitive efforts did exist at the time he began running Tesla. The positive externalities of both SpaceX and Tesla existing are enormous, and probably still outweigh the negative externalities of the rest of his actions. However, Elon personally has always been a jerk, and now seems to be going off the deep end, spending way too much time on the culture wars and on the needlessly antagonizing dopamine / polarization factory of Twitter. Even some very pro-Elon people I know are quietly frustrated by what seems like a pointless distraction from the much more important mission of advancing the capabilities frontier of humanity. My personal experience of this feels like seeing someone whose work I used to deeply respect get addicted to some stupid drug and be on a path to wrecking his life. However, it's worth remembering that at this point SpaceX is not just Elon; SpaceX long ago reached a critical mass of brilliant, driven people, and the launch this week was the culmination of all their efforts. At this point it's an organization and a movement with enormous momentum, and this week's launch is the whole company's success to celebrate.