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#SpaceWatchGL Space4Earth – The environmental risks of SpaceX formula

by Dr. Farid Gamgami

Starship third test flight reentering Earth on March the 14th 2024. Credit: SpaceX


It has now been a week since SpaceX’s IFT 3 took off and kept us in suspense. All space enthusiasts around the globe are eagerly waiting for the promised new era in which access to space becomes the new normal, in which prices will fall to a fraction of their current level and new business models will emerge.

Fly, fail, learn, repeat – and do it fast. That is SpaceX’s simple yet bold formula to bring us into this future. And it’s this approach that, strangely, most others cannot adopt. For sure not by highly risk-averse agencies, but established private companies fail too. Starliner is just a further sad example of immense budget overruns and schedule delays.

Back to SpaceX, the space world is captivated by the success and speed unleashed by the aforementioned formula. As long as the “fail fast but learn faster” approach leads to failures close to the Earth’s surface or during atmospheric re-entry, the environmental impact is locally confined and manageable. However, what SpaceX intends next in its development plan will most likely lead to failure in orbit.

How many moon landing attempts it will take until all critical hardware, software, and operational problems have been solved?

I am particularly concerned about the orbital refuelling tests. The risk of creating a considerable amount of space debris is pretty high not to say inevitable — given SpaceX’s formula. This unpleasant but veritable risk seems not to be recognised by the hyped space community. However, it is a critical bottleneck for the entire Spaceship program and we should be getting worried. Given the wave of enthusiasm we are riding, change in perception will most likely not happen before the first failure – a very human trait. As soon as this failure causes space debris, exceeding the ones of an ASAT weapon, the awakening will be harsh. Public outcry will be large and authorities will ground Starship for a considerable time period, with incalculable delays for the Artemis program.

Let’s assume this scenario will not occur, and SpaceX can demonstrate in-orbit fuelling without catastrophic incidents. The next bottleneck will be the autonomous landing on the Moon. Each landing attempt will require somewhere between 8 and 14 Starship launches and consequently refuelling procedures. SpaceX demonstrated a very steep engineering learning curve, thanks to its development philosophy. The company is certainly taking the economic factor into account but when it comes to environmental protection and sustainability, public awareness reached the Moon. Here, too, the question arises as to how many moon landing attempts it will take until all critical hardware, software, and operational problems have been solved? Failure is part of the process but the cost of failure, literally and in terms of public perception, is becoming higher. Therefore, the issue of responsibility remains a significant concern (vigorously raised by Dr. Emma Gatti in the article The first case of space washing?).  As long as the impact of failure was locally confined, the world accepted accidents, but we are entering a new stage in which impact is global, and we all know how easily public opinion can turn against you.

In the past 15 years, I have learned that you should not bet against SpaceX if it comes to technical challenges. But even SpaceX cannot dodge the global outcry caused by a catastrophic orbital event with tons of space debris. The company has many smart employees, familiar with the concept of scenario-planning and risk analysis, it is therefore to be expected that measures are in discussion. As a result, we might see a deviation from the bold formula of fast success. The new, unspoken approach could be to fail more slowly, but still learn quickly. In technical terms, to throttle down. In ethical terms, to show responsibility.


Credit of the author

Dr. Farid Gamgami holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from RWTH Aachen and a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Heidelberg. His career is as diverse as his education, encompassing roles in space transportation, exploration, and Earth Observation. He has served in various capacities, including systems engineer, program manager, bid and acquisition manager, and most recently as Chief Strategy Officer for a space SME. In addition to his professional roles, Dr. Gamgami is also an author and speaker. He currently focuses on assisting businesses and agencies in emerging spacefaring nations to advance in the space segment.

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