upstart writes in with an IRC submission for c0lo:
[Nearly 4 years ago, we covered flooding at the "doomsday" seed bank at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Fortunately, there was no harm to the seed samples stored there. For further background, consult the Wikipedia entry on the seed vault. --Ed]
Why We Need A ‘Moon Ark’ To Store Frozen Seeds, Sperm And Eggs From 6.7 Million Earth Species:
Species or planets[sic] could be wiped off the face of the Earth any minute—so we need a “Moon Ark” to safely store frozen eggs, sperm, seeds and other DNA matter from all 6.7 million Earth species.That’s according to students and staff at the University of Arizona, who at the IEEE Aerospace Conference last weekend divulged details of an ambitious “modern global insurance policy” for our planet. Their daring plan is to build a complex in the Moon’s lava tubes staffed by robots and fuelled by solar panels on the lunar surface.[...] The incredible plan to build a lunar base that includes an underground ark goes something like this:
Species or planets[sic] could be wiped off the face of the Earth any minute—so we need a “Moon Ark” to safely store frozen eggs, sperm, seeds and other DNA matter from all 6.7 million Earth species.
That’s according to students and staff at the University of Arizona, who at the IEEE Aerospace Conference last weekend divulged details of an ambitious “modern global insurance policy” for our planet.
Their daring plan is to build a complex in the Moon’s lava tubes staffed by robots and fuelled by solar panels on the lunar surface.
[...] The incredible plan to build a lunar base that includes an underground ark goes something like this:
Ball-like SphereX robots—each weighing about 11lbs/5kg and able to fly and hop—to enter, explore and map the Moon’s recently discovered (in 2013) network of underground lava tubes, each about 328ft./100 meters in diameter. Design, and then construct, underground ark in the lava tubes, with solar panels on the lunar surface and elevator shafts that access the facility. Launch 250 rockets to the Moon, each taking 50 samples from each of 6.7 million species (it took about 40 to build the International Space Station). Store the petri dishes of seeds in cryogenic preservation modules inside the lava tubes, which would shield the seeds from solar radiation, meteorites and temperature fluctuations. The seeds would be kept at around -292ºF/180ºC, temperatures that would likely cold-weld together metal parts of the base. Cue “floating shelves” made from cryo-cooled superconductor materials that enable quantum levitation above a powerful magnet.Staff the facility with robots that navigate through it above magnetic tracks. Robots that can operate under cryo-conditions don’t yet exist—though the proposers admit that new technologies will be needed to make the “Moon Ark” a reality.
I think you're dramatically overestimating the challenges of establishing a base on the moon. We can establish bases that can exist for arbitrary periods of time in space. We can put people and supplies on the moon. All that's left are details. The real problem is not technological but much more practical (and difficult to solve) : politics. NASA's grand vision for the moon is primarily focused around recreating what we did more than half a century again, except with an astronaut who has a vagina instead of a penis. Instead of the goal being actually getting something that can meaningfully advance humanity done, it's political - exact same as it was the first time. And so the result will be the same. Great! We landed them on the moon! Mission accomplished! Cut the funding, cancel the plans, and shut it all down - and make a movie about it!
The second you spend even a penny on grand vision technologies you'll be met with a large lobby of whitey on the moon [youtube.com], 2021 version. And the logic is compelling to most, because most people don't really understand that the reason our lives, relative to the past, are so nice is not because of some major breakthrough in politics or whatever but because of advances in technology. And what advances will come from what technology is basically impossible to predict. What would people expect to have come of those "automatic roomsized calculating machines" government were spending an eye-bleeding amount of money to develop around WW2, in large part motivated by a desire to crack encryption? Indeed one wonders if not for WW2 whether we would be where we are today in terms of computing? Spending millions of dollars to build massive room sized 'automatic calculators' requiring full-time staff to operate, all to be able to do little more than execute schoolboy level arithmetic a few thousand times a second? Aren't there better ways to spend that money?
It's for this reason that I unfortunately expect the future of humanity (which, in my opinion, is space) resides with China: technocratic leadership within a democratic dictatorship. That last part is not a pejorative - that's literally how China is described within Article 1 [www.gov.cn] of their constitution, and it seems generally quite appropriate. If they see the benefit in establishing a base on the moon (which they do and have announced plans for such) then they will make a base on the moon happen. And that is but the starting line, similar to how primitive "computing machines" of WW2 were the starting line. Of course I'm ignoring the pink elephant of private sector here, but the problem there is again the same : $$$. And anyhow this post is already too long!
>The real problem is not technological but much more practical (and difficult to solve) : politics.
I would say the bigger problem is money. Even assuming SpaceX gets Starship up and running, and it lowers launch prices all the way to their best-case scenario.... establishing a moon base is still going to be ferociously expensive, and very unlikely to reach break-even for at least many decades.
>NASA's grand vision for the moon is primarily focused around recreating what we did more than half a century again,...I would say you haven't been paying very close attention. The point of the Apollo program was to land someone on the moon. That's it. A little science (*very* little - they didn't even include a scientist until the very last mission), but primarily Cold War political/technological theater. There was never any plan for it to be anything more.
Artemis is a plan to establish infrastructure in Lunar orbit, and begin scouting the surface with an eye toward establishing an industrial presence, in non-binding cooperation with the space agencies from 20+ other nations. With a big part of the goal being to establish and field-test the systems needed to get to and from lunar orbit on a regular basis, both from Earth, and from the lunar surface. We don't yet have a lot of specific plans for exactly what that presence will look like - finding out what we 'll need and what will be possible is one of the long-term goals of Artemis, but there's already been considerable investment in developing the technologies that will make it possible. As one example - Sadoway (the Ambri liquid metal battery guy) developed for NASA a magma refinery to convert raw lunar regolith into oxygen (=rocket fuel), steel, and other useful metals via electrolysis with a minimum of complexity. And part of NASA's plan is to have an outpost on the moon by 2030 that's mining at least 1% of the oxygen necessary to sustain itself.
If it was not clear, politics and $$$ are equivalent in my comments. You get funding when things are politically convenient, you don't when they're not. When you go back to the past, Apollo was not the finish line. NASA had envisioned the moon landing as but the first small step in a much bigger vision which you can read about here [nasa.gov]. A large space station (bigger than the ISS) was to be built by 1975 in large part to play a role in the development of an exponentially larger station following immediately thereafter. They then aimed to develop a lunar base by 1976 with their eyes on the real prize - Mars. Human missions of which were to be started by the 1980s, with colonization following in relatively short order.
After the success of Apollo (in 1969) Wernher von Braun, chief architect of the Apollo program, was assigned as the deputy head of NASA. Within 2 years he'd resign amid the government cancelling pretty much everything (which is what I was referencing in the above post). The only thing that didn't get axed was the "Space Transportation System", which would eventually be renamed the Space Shuttle. And the only reason it survived was likely due to its direct utility as a tool for the military. So our grand plans of today are nothing new, nor is cancelling them. Most recently would probably be the Constellation Program. [wikipedia.org] Again the idea was to get to the moon, no later than 2020 - with our eyes on Mars, once again, as the real prize.
Cancelling the Constellation program was one of Obama's early acts as president. He then created the SLS program, which has very little to do with space and everything to do with pork and kickbacks. SLS, the Space Launch System, is frequently and probably more accurately referred to as the Senate Launch System. Kennedy gave his 'to the moon' speech in late 1962, when we had never achieved anything remotely like it. Less than 7 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon. In a few months we'll be coming up on the SLS being more than a decade old. Its grandest and most recent "achievement" was failing a static fire, with the engine's burning out 67 seconds into a planned 485 second burn. And the Artemis program is based on the SLS...
To see what the focus of Artemis really is, just look at how the program is always introduced. And it is "We're going to put the first person with a vagina on the moon!" The reason I frame it in such a derogatory way is because that has absolutely nothing to do with what we really need to be doing. What people have between their legs is completely irrelevant. The reason it's the focus is because identity politics is en vogue, yet space is not. And so the result is extremely predictable. Once the en vogue focus is done with (human on the moon in the past, vagina on the moon in present), you're going to have a 'mission accomplished - axe everything' moment.
I was thinking more economics that politics. "Poltically convenient" runs into a brick wall when you start talking about spending a significant portion of the GDP on a project that's unlikely to every offer a return on investment. Apollo was outrageously expensive. A moon base would have made that look like a checkout-line impulse buy. And at the time we didn't have the technology to do anything useful there.
How things are phrased for the public is pretty much always just window dressing for any political project, they say whatever they feel will get the people behind it. Remember WMDs in Iraq? Or how the Keystone pipeline was supposed to lower gas prices for Americans? Both were always bald-faced lies, and everybody actually paying attention knew it. But, they cast the projects in a favorable light for the peasants.
As for women - actually I disagree. We've been short-changing women in our society basically forever, and having them take a prominent role in a high-profile project like this is important optics to keep swinging the cultural needle towards actual equality. It only has a little to do with the space program (women are actually considerably better suited to a wide range of space projects than men - lower mass, greater radiation resistance, etc.), but it's practically the only return on investment we're likely to see for decades.
We *did* have the technology to do plenty of useful things on the moon. The Apollo program was just the starting point. There's nothing magical about the moon. All you need is supplies and people - and you're good to go. And no, the Apollo program was relatively cheap. The entire program, all 12 years of it, cost around $25.4 billion at the time - about $120 billion inflation adjusted to today. That's $10 billion a year. NASA's current budget is $23.3 billion a year. And the vast majority of that cost was in getting up to the point of being able to launch people to the moon successfully, not the cost of that actual endeavor. The actual cost of Apollo 11 (the moon landing) itself was a total of $355 million, about $1.7 billion inflation adjusted. All of the values I've given here are from the 1974 NASA Authorization Hearings. [hathitrust.org] So the numbers are straight from NASA themselves.
As for the women thing. I really wish America could move beyond this stuff and start looking to places like Norway. There was an extremely interesting documentary in Norway called Hjernevask [wikipedia.org]. That page has links to all the videos, or you can also watch them here [archive.org]. On archive.org, you need to click on the CC button to turn on the English subtitles, which are of excellent quality.
Norway was and remains the most gender equal nation in the world. Yet there remain "inequalities". For instance even in Norway the vast majority of nurses are female and the vast majority of engineers are male. There have been major efforts, lasting years, to try to change this but the story is always the same. When you have these programs running you get a very mild change in the balance, and when the programs finish - everything resorts, almost immediately, back to the equilibrium it had before. Why? Well of course you're going to say it's all environmental of some flavor or another.
What do the experts think? Well that was the point of the documentary. He simply sought out leading experts and researchers in the field and asked them for their views on what the causes for these differences are. And then asked them for their opinion on various studies they'd all be familiar with. For instance one really interesting fact is that even in infancy major gender biases emerge - given a choice, boys will prefer to play with a truck, while girls will be more interested in dolls. Why did they think this was?
And this wasn't a Michael Moore 'gotcha' style documentary. Everything has appropriate context, there was never any sort of confrontational behavior or whatever, nor was it him citing obscure studies and trying to make the researchers look ignorant. They all knew what he was talking about. But the problem is that when confronted with data that didn't just assume that everything was environmental, the researchers really were left to resort to circular logic and assuming their own hypotheses - which is rather the opposite of what science is about.
The documentary, which aired on public TV in Norway, not only started a major discussion on the topic but ultimately led to Norway cancelling all public funding for gender studies programs. A state that remains true to this very day, as does their being the most gender equal nation in the world. Hjernevask, in Norwegian, translates to 'to brainwash.'
I think the goal we should always strive for, in everything, is color and gender blindness. Do so much as you can to ensure equal opportunity, but let people do what they want and judge people without bias with respect their sex, race, or other characteristic beyond 'how good is this person at this task.' Pick the best people for the job, and only the best people for the job, and society wins. I see no reason to elevate any group over another for any reason, ever. Because when you do this you are trying to solve a perceived problem, which may or may not exist, by engaging in the exact behavior (unfair prejudice) you are trying to defeat.
Sometimes you can fight fire with fire. Most the time though, you just end up making an even bigger fire.
That's $120 billion for 12 flights, while the high capacity Apollo LM Truck was designed to deliver 11,000 pounds of payload to the surface. That means 4.3 flights to deliver a single 20' shipping container worth of supplies. Even though a whole lot of that money went to R&D, you're still looking at way over $4 billion per shipping container.
So, how many shipping containers do you suppose it would realistically take to establish enough of a base that they could start mining oxygen, metal, etc. and start contributing to their own growth? There could be a lot of concrete construction early on, but concrete has lousy tensile strength, so for pressurized environments you'd need to either at least ship rebar from Earth, or bury the habitat fairly deep underground to use weight to counteract air pressure. Assuming a typical 3 tons/m^3 rock density for lunar regolith, you'd need about 20m to reach a pressure of 1 atm under lunar gravity - and probably about twice that in practice since you'd probably be dealing with sand and gravel with lots of voids rather than solid rock. Though with luck they could find some lava tubes to build in, taking advantage of the mass of rock already above them.
As for the women thing - you've clearly gt your own opinions that I'm unlikely to sway. I'll simply say I'm not actually terribly concerned about the differences in carreer choice - we're different, it's reasonable that those differences would manifest in some obvious ways. What I *am* concerned about is the differences in compensation and power. There's a very strong trend to pay women less for the same job, even when they outperform their male peers. And even more persistently to pay "women's jobs" dramatically less than "men's jobs" even when both require a similar level of skill and training. And of course there's the long-standing trend to drive women out of a career path as it becomes respectable. Computer science being one of the obvious recent examples - it was predominantly a poorly paid "woman's job", following the trend of women as pre-digital computers - until the potential and respectability began to become obvious, at which point women were largely driven out of the field and wages increased substantially. As for power - given the large number of ancient societies that had matriarchal power structures, any argument that women don't want to be in positions of authority falls flat. If anything it's a strong argument that they should be over-represented in a just society, on the theory that anyone who actually wants power should not be given it.
The point I was making with the Apollo figures was not to say we rebuild the Apollo program, but rather that *even* the Apollo program was getting to the moon for costs nowhere even remotely close to $20-$30 billion. The actual cost SpaceX would charge would likely be in hundreds of millions. And Starship will bring that even further down.
Again on the women topic, you're engaging in the exact same behaviors that ended up getting gender studies programs cancelled in Norway. You're saying a lot of hyper-charged statements that are not only lack evidence but also logic. On evidence, a recent Harvard study [harvard.edu] engaged in a study on a micro-scale, analyzing exactly why a wage gap persists in a unionized occupation where basic education levels were identical, work tasks were designed to be homogeneous, promotion was based entirely on tenure, and yet men were still earning more. They, once again, found personal decisions were entirely driving the differences in outcome. And that study is not a one-off. Literally every single time a field is examined in detail, you find - there is no gender gap, whatsoever.
On the logic side of the issue, think about what you're proposing. Corporations, especially now a days, care about nothing more than their bottom line. The 'old boys club' stereotype doesn't exactly fit with the reality of them happily replacing Mike Smith with Achalraj Balakrishnan. If women were capable of working to the same degree, and producing the same results for less? You'd see corporations with nothing but women. For that matter, women themselves are completely free to start their own companies. And indeed if they can increase efficiency to the point of performing the same work, for less, they'd be able to outprice nearly any corporation in existence since labor is generally a company's greatest expense? Yet? None of this exists.
And nah, unlike most - I rarely have my mind "made up" on just about any topic. I, so much as I can, try to survey the evidence and come to my own conclusion. Most people, especially Americans, now a days tend to go in the opposite direction of simply deciding what they want to be true and then finding evidence to support it. And since people just want to confirm their own biases, most don't really bother to check the quality or integrity of what they're reading, citing, etc - only ensuring that it confirms their biases.
Also, in terms of price, we've spent $6 trillion on COVID so far - and that number looks set to rapidly rise. If we spent let's say $5 trillion instead, would our outcome have genuinely been that much different? Probably not. And by "we" I don't mean humanity, I mean the United States - many don't realize how much money we're spending on this. Similarly for our various wars. We regularly spend trillions of dollars to achieve relatively little. For the smallest of fractions of these sort of figures, we could transform humanity into a space-faring civilization. So this is why I focus on politics instead of the money itself. The money is not really an issue, but getting a government with the political will to make this happen is.
>We regularly spend trillions of dollars to achieve relatively little. For the smallest of fractions of these sort of figures, we could transform humanity into a space-faring civilization
I think you grossly underestimate the cost of developing an industrial moon base - which is pretty much an essential first step to developing a significant presence in space. We can't do anything significant in space so long as we're having to haul all the fuel and materials up from Earth. NASA is estimating $20-30 billlion just to land on the moon. Now scale that up to landing a few dozen shipping containers worth of supplies so that we could start building just a preliminary outpost, much less an industrial facility. Without reusable transportation to the Moon's surface, which may still be years away, it's just not realistic.
As for the COVID response - it's important to recognize that most of that money was handouts to the wealthy, which has a huge return on investment for the politicians making the decision. A space program has essentially no payout, and almost all the money would be going to actual expenses that don't make anyone much money.
That $20-$30 billion cited by Bridenstine (head administrator of NASA) is money that would have mostly just been dumped into the blackhole that is Artemis/SLS. He may as well have said it would cost a trillion dollars to land on the moon and hired a bunch of weavers, because at this point building a rope out of dollar bills would be more effective than giving Boeing more money. He was the best administrator NASA had in decades, but he sold out hard at some point in the past couple of years. Hope he's enjoying his private life working as a "senior adviser" at some shell investment company focused on Boeing et al. Was it worth it Jimmy boy?
So what would be the real cost be? If NASA cared they could find out. Tell SpaceX you want 100k kg on the moon within a year, two at most. Ask for a number, give them the commercial guarantee, and it will happen. I don't know what that number would be, but it's going to be way under $20 billion even with current gen tech. And if we look to immediate future tech, the Starship in particular, this all becomes trivial. You're talking about 150,000kg to the moon (or Mars) after an in-orbit refuel on a ship that is designed from the ground up to be 100% reusable. And SpaceX is developing that [primarily] with their own money.
Of course you hit on the real problem: corruption. And this again gets back to why I think the future of humanity belongs to China.
Bridenstine, like his predecessors, had to work within the limitations placed on him by the Senate. I don't see any obvious reason to fault his performance. If someone out there has done an exhaustive analysis of Bridenstine vs. Bolden, I would like to see it. I don't know if it was Charles Bolden or Michael D. Griffin that can be credited with saving SpaceX with a cash flood.
I want to caution that it will probably take multiple in-orbit refuels to get a full payload landed on the Moon or Mars. Apparently 5 times for Mars [arstechnica.com], I'm not sure how many for the Moon. That is subject to the change, as is the maximum payload (estimated between 100,000 kg and 150,000 kg, i.e. 100-150 tons). Even if the launch costs hits $20 million for landing cargo on Moon/Mars, that's still well under Falcon 9 for a much larger payload. It seems like the upper stage could be cheap enough to abandon at these places, despite the fully reusable nature of the vehicle. The biggest loss would be the Raptor engines. The steel body is cheap as hell. It would be funny if SpaceX makes grain silos as a side business just to boost the production rate.
For a Moon base, a passenger version of Starship could serve as a functional habitat, although maybe the radiation protection is insufficient without modifications... or burying it in regolith.
I have two major issues with Bridenstine (by the end - as I mentioned, he was phenomenal early on) :
1) Treating companies in radically different ways. Boeing continues to fail at everything. The only question is where the failure runs on the gamut from mild to catastrophic. Yet the response from Bridenstine each and every time was a repeating pattern of understating the impact, doing as much PR work for Boeing et al as possible, and then trying to rush them forward to the next test - which they, predictably, fail even more spectacularly at. Even Boeing's head pilot [wikipedia.org] for the Starliner resigned to "spend more time with his family." When literal test pilots are getting nervous about the systems in place, you know something has gone very wrong. By contrast the slightest slip of SpaceX was treated in the exact opposite way with an extreme exaggeration in both messaging and consequences for any failure whatsoever.
2) Not speaking honestly. The SLS is, plainly, garbage. If the program ever gets off the ground, and that is a very big if, it will already be obsolete - and dramatically overpriced. The continued funding of the program is driven primarily by corruption. It's never going to do any of the things Bridenstine was advocating for it to do, and he knew this. But he wasn't just 'playing the game.' He went above and beyond to praise SLS, Boeing, Artemis, and other programs that have near 0 chance of success. Did you see his press conference after SpaceX achieved the historic achievement of a private US company sending men to the ISS? He was gushing endlessly... about Boeing, SLS, Starliner, Artemis, etc. SpaceX was mentioned in passing, if you can even call it that. It felt like Satire, but it was real.
I think this [twitter.com] comment from Bridenstine, on the eve of SpaceX's Starship announcement, is when things started to become overt. He chose to say, "I am looking forward to the SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. *It's time to deliver.*'
It's about that time that he just started becoming deeply irrational and clearly "bought" by Boeing. "Bought" sounds so cliche, but I really find it difficult to ignore that he's now instantly segued into some role as a high level "adviser" at an investment company acquiring contractors that work directly, and exclusively, on behalf of "Tier 1 Defense Contractors" aka Boeing, Lockheed, etc. That's not a coincidence - it's a payout.
Okay, but that's probably all just a digression. Who cares about what somebody says or how he treats other companies, if he actually gets stuff done. And like you alluded to, Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo both happened under his watch and huge leaps forward. The problem here is that any answer is going to be hypothetical. I just feel that so much more could have been achieved had he remained even half the man he started out as. Something I constantly consider is that the entire Apollo program from concept to boots on the moon took 7 years - with absolutely no baseline technology to work from. There's no reason NASA should be in this absurd situation they're in, aside from the fact that everybody keeps playing The Emperor's New Clothes with regards to SLS. [wikipedia.org]
There's not that many NASA Administrators, and ultimately they are tools of whatever Administration is in office. Therefore, I don't expect honesty, and do expect plenty of gushing over SLS (govt name: Senate Launch System) and Artemis. The tweet was unfortunate, and maybe you're right about Bridenstine pivoting to becoming a complete tool of ULA, but his actions (if/when he is the actual decision maker) are the most important thing and I don't think SpaceX was hurt. Already we've had a scare under the Biden Administration with the FAA apparently throwing red tape at the Starship program, but that seems to have been a misunderstanding/hype. Maybe we can partly blame Boeing's failures for the FAA becoming more cautious?
Personally, I'm done raging about SLS for a while. There is nothing we as random individuals can do to raise enough public awareness to kill SLS. The Senate still wants it and not enough of the public even know it exists, much less why it is a complete boondoggle. The recent bad test and slowdown of the Artemis program should delay it by another year, at least. All the focus should be on Starship now, and that's a lot more fun due to the speed and openness of the test program.
Musk could start to explicitly badmouth SLS, and I would like to see him incorporate criticism into a Starship presentation directly comparing it to the SLS and calling for SLS to be canned. But Starship needs to be working first and not exploding every month. I think we also need to see a "fuck you" moment for good measure. Not a mere orbital launch, which we may see as early as this summer [nasaspaceflight.com]. We could really use a Starship sitting on the Moon before SLS even flies, a feat that was suggested by Bridenstine himself IIRC. Then SpaceX can activate the PR campaign while we go hard in the paint against SLS on every public forum. I think Boeing/ULA's PR assets have thrown some shade at SpaceX, but they would not be able to withstand what is coming.
This absurd situation sucks, but Starship's projected $/kg is an absolute game changer. I am actually fine with NASA being paralyzed (other than the gobs of cash going towards SLS/ULA and not SpaceX) since Starship will enable much more ambitious projects. I don't want Apollo-level competence and speed out of NASA until they have the correct tool for the job: fully reusable rockets.
Yip, on all of this I'd agree. With one exception. If any "normal" company has failed like Boeing has, not only in space but also now even in commercial air transport, they would almost certainly no longer exist. And it's not out of the question that we'd even be pursuing criminal charges against them - Boeing have now, at the minimum, contributed to hundreds of deaths by what are undoubtedly major systemic issues within the company, likely due for the pettiest of all motivations - optimizing for shareholder profit instead of actually focusing on their products. But because they're Boeing, everything is business as usual.
Our entire political system has become deeply incestuous. This is, in part, due to appointments, and in part due to sycophancy in hopes of personal advancement. And Boeing is a major part in this entire dysfunctional system, working as a key player in the military industrial complex, among other roles. Musk has been more than happy to wade into numerous controversial topics ranging from the dysfunctional media to wokeness, and he even committed to cardinal sin of speaking in a cordial way with "The Russians" in Cyrillic! But the one thing he's never poked has been the SLS, or "real" politics in general. And I don't think that's a coincidence. The government could kill SpaceX in a practically infinite number of ways, and the media would kick their spin machine into overdrive to condone it.
I think he's doing the right thing by just keeping his eyes on the prize. Like you allude to, it's increasingly looking like SpaceX will, at the minimum, be flying folks around the moon before the SLS gets off the ground. And that will speak far louder than any words ever could.
I bring it up because I think SpaceX is quickly becoming too important for the U.S. government to kill. It's now the American ride to the ISS, with Boeing not being an option until no earlier than September 2021. It's a critical launch provider for NASA, the Air/Space Force, and the National Reconnaissance Office. Starlink is also being eyed for use by the Air Force and Army. Musk is gaining leverage that he can use to go on the attack. One of SLS's biggest proponents, Senator Richard Shelby, is retiring after 2022.
At the same time, Starship needs to be operational before the SLS can be utterly destroyed. Even though several Falcon Heavy launches are probably a better idea than one SLS launch, providing a single rocket that can do everything that SLS can is important, to leave no remaining excuses. Starship has a wider/larger payload fairing, and can likely exceed even the mythical SLS Block 2's payload capacity (~130 tons), while in fully reusable mode. In-orbit refueling is required to get any payload to TLI, so that must work first. A chart on Everyday Astronaut [everydayastronaut.com] suggests it can get 40 tons to TLI with a single refuel (comparable to SLS Block 1B at 43 tons), and the full ~150 tons with two refuels.
>It seems like the upper stage could be cheap enough to abandon at these places, despite the fully reusable nature of the vehicle. The biggest loss would be the Raptor engines.
For Mars especially that's probably a good idea - that's a whole lot of water and energy to consume to ship back a giant fuel tank back to Earth where we can make more easily enough. Especially when that steel would be an extremely valuable resource on MArs, at least until they develop a substantial industrial base. But with a few tweaks it could be made even more appealing:
1) Remove the engines from a bunch of rockets and ship them back to Earth as the payload of a single rocket. They're by far the most expensive components, and don't actually weigh all that much compared to the rest of the ship.
2) Use the "shells" as habitat modules. You're talking ballpark of 2500m^3 of pressurized space within a Starship once you cut doors into the propellant tanks, pre-tested to far higher pressures than you'd want for a habitat. Towers are a bit unwieldy, but if you were looking to build a Mars colony it might well be worth it to ship a couple of those skeletal cranes to Mars - they could be far flimsier than on Earth thanks to the lower gravity. Pick up a pressurized Starship with two cranes: one on the nose as normal, then the other to grab it near the base and lay it down on its belly in a trench. Then cover it with a few meters of gravel and you've got yourself a nice stable, well-shielded habitat module. You might even weld floor-trusses in place within the fuel tanks ahead of time so that you only need to lay down some floor boards to create some nice wide-open multi-storey habitats. Might want a layer of insulation on the outside to keep the heat from leaching into the surrounding rock, but there's lots of options for that.
I really think there's enormous potential for dedicated space-station and Moon-/Mars-base versions of Starship. They provide a whole lot of pressurized space, deliverable to wherever you want it with a minimum of fuss. But even just retrofitting normal Starships wouldn't take much effort - steel is easy to work with.