Back in the early years of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the agency had a steel and wood (yes, wood) prototype vehicle that matched the parameters of the space shuttle. It never had any hope – or intention – of flying, but it played an important role.
NASA used it to make sure that any of the operational shuttles would fit wherever they had to go. They towed it around as a “pathfinder,” making sure that the shuttles could safely clear any turns when moved. The shuttle was also hooked up to various cranes to be sure the actual shuttles would fit anywhere they needed to be.
The mock-up vehicle was refurbished in the early 80s to look like an operational shuttle. That’s when it got the name Pathfinder. It spent a year in Tokyo, and then went to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to the Pathfinder, the museum also holds a vertical Saturn V and a single-seat A-12 Blackbird.
But what does this have to do with SpaceX and the Starship MK2 prototype?
What SpaceX Should Do with the Old Starship MK2
If you read my article about a Hot Rod Starship, you know I like to offer crazy speculation about SpaceX’s next steps. But thinking about the NASA Pathfinder mock-up as a precedent, my idea of what to do with the Starship MK2 may not seem as far-fetched as a hot rod Starship landing on Phobos.
Based on recent videos, the MK2 Starship prototype is still hanging out over at the old Cocoa Beach Starship construction site. Going by the aerial video, there hasn’t been any real change at the site.
And that got me thinking… Elon has no sentimentality for “old stuff” – or ideas. He has said in interviews, like the one below with the Everyday Astronaut, that he doesn’t believe in the “sunk cost fallacy.”
The switch from carbon fiber to stainless steel for Starship construction is the perfect example of that. He said in the interview, “One of the most common mistakes of smart engineers is to optimize on a part or process that does not need to be present.” He’s not afraid to switch things up, as evidenced again and again.
With this in mind, SpaceX certainly isn’t holding onto old Starship parts due to any sort of sentimentality. Yet, there are so many obsolete parts scattered around Boca Chica, someone could theoretically build several more spacecraft just from the unused remains of former Starships.
It’s likely SpaceX simply decided they have the space to store the parts, rather than scrapping them. Their time is better used building new equipment instead of getting rid of old junk.
And that’s likely why the old MK2 is still hanging around Cocoa Beach and hasn’t been cut up for scrap, yet, either. I personally am happy that the MK2 is still around. I’d love to see it moved to the SpaceX facility at Kennedy Space Center, where there could be one potential use for it.
With a little bit more work, the Starship MK2 would make for a near perfect Pathfinder mock-up vehicle.
Now, to go back to the sunk-cost fallacy, there’s another question to ponder: Would it be less expensive to simply build a new “Pathfinder” test vehicle on site than it would cost to move the MK2? And does SpaceX even really need one?
Why not skip ahead then, to the NASA Pathfinder’s ultimate fate as a museum piece?
SpaceX: Fueling Excitement for Space Travel
Maybe it’s sentimental on my part to want SpaceX to hold onto this early prototype and convert it into a useful – or even a promotional – vehicle of some sort.
The MK2 is the only Starship I’ve managed to see in person, so far. We were able to just barely spot it from the road as we drove by the plant in Cocoa Beach on the way to visit friends in August 2019.
My kids were less than impressed by their chance to glimpse a bit of a steel cylinder behind a building, largely hidden from trees. Even my wife, a bigger Elon Musk fan than I am, was hardly impressed. She had her mind on pool time, fresh seafood – and a bit too much rum – at our friends’ house.
But it’s not often space travel fans can see these small parts of history in the making – even if we don’t really grasp the relevance until later. Merely by tweeting photos of Starship under construction and allowing so many videos to circulate, Elon Musk and SpaceX are helping to get future generations excited about space travel again.
Refurbishing the MK2 into a Pathfinder-type vessel that resembles an operational Starship and, eventually, donating it to a museum, would be yet another small way to fuel people’s excitement about what SpaceX is doing and bring the company’s goals just a little closer to home for many people.