It is no secret that SpaceX intends Starlink to revolutionize internet access, thereby generating enormous economic value and profit that can be directed towards the goal of building a city on Mars. As of March 2021, SpaceX has 1261 satellites in orbit and is well on the way to simultaneously operating more satellites than all other operators in history combined. Maps show that the constellation is already capable of delivering high quality internet (with occasional short outages) to >99% of the world’s population. From here it’s mostly a matter of execution.
So just how much treasure is required to launch stuff to Mars anyway? Working on the basis of $0.10/GB and $10m per Starship launch, 10% profit margin means that the marginal profit on each bit transmitted through Starlink is adequate to launch one cubic micron of matter, or about a trillion atoms, to Mars. This is the size of a small bacterium. A few million people watching Netflix and now we’re getting somewhere!
Of course, Starship isn’t in the business of launching bacteria to Mars. The little critters, afterall, have other transit options available. No, Starship lands cargo on any solid surface in increments of 100 T.
This got me thinking about the implications of Starship for the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon as part of a sustainable, extended exploration program. Starship is currently one of three landers in the running as part of the Human Landing System program.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to love about all three contenders, and two of them go out of their way to respond precisely to the call.
For more details, you cannot do better than this recently posted summary by YouTuber Apogee.
Nevertheless, one of these is not like the others. As a reminder, this blog carries only my own opinions and I don’t have any inside information.
While Starship delivers cargo in 100 T increments, the other two are designed to deliver 2-4 people to the Moon once per year, requiring 3-4 Vulcan/New Glenn launches each, just for the Gateway-Surface element.
Indeed, if either Dynetics or National Team is downselected (i.e. cancelled) after the review anticipated in April, they could fly all the hardware to the Lunar surface inside Starship, and at substantially reduced cost. There’s a good chance Starship could actually fly them both on the same trip, but with launches that cheap, why economize on leg room?
How can this be? They’re all made of basically the same stuff and use basically the same technology. Steel, aluminium, gyroscopes, rocket engines, liquid oxygen. Under HLS, National Team is being developed for about $10b, Dynetics for $5b, and Starship for $2.5b, roughly in inverse order of capability, but all within the same order of magnitude. And yet…
The key difference is that, since the dawn of the space age, every space mission designer has sought endlessly to save mass. Instrument sub-components on Perseverance were tracked to within a tenth of a gram, the weight of a postage stamp, on a rover that weighs more than a tonne. Launching rockets is hard and weight is limited.
Starship is different. It has more in common with the logistics of D-Day or the Berlin Airlift. SpaceX recognizes that there is no way to build a self-sustaining city with payloads measured in tenths of grams. The history of prospective Lunar and Mars exploration architectures is littered with failed concepts that attempted to shoehorn enormously ambitious missions into tiny payload fairings with insufficient mass budgets.
While every other player in the space is trying to minimize mass, SpaceX is trying to maximize it.
Sure, something like Mars Direct might enable 4-6 humans every 2 years with 1 SLS-like launch per year, but how does that get to a sustainable city? Increase SLS production by a factor of 1000? Or just build a fleet of Starships for a thousandth the cost?
There is no way around it, SpaceX will have to launch millions of tonnes of cargo to Mars over just a few decades. Fortunately, in their business they sell launches, rather than buying them! This makes a big difference in how they approach the problem. For Dynetics or the National Team, their HLS lander has to fit within a small number of launches from a commercial provider with existing (incredibly expensive) launch technology. For SpaceX, their HLS lander is a minimally modified variant of their already-flying next generation Starship.
For NASA, this is an enormous present to just land in their lap. Their cheapest bidder just went and broke the whole game. By developing a system with previously unimaginable capability, success for Artemis is suddenly back on the table.
How can this work?
No-one really doubts that SLS-level investment for a decade or two couldn’t get a few people to the Moon. But consider the context of a “sustainable presence”. This means, within a fixed and politically defensible operating budget, keep the program ticking over. The ISS is a terrific example of how an otherwise peculiar program managed to avoid cancellation for a long time, due in part to the underlying political and international structures that sustained it. In short, it had something for everyone to love.
The ISS will not last forever and the current plan calls for the next station in LEO to be commercially operated, while NASA’s next station, Gateway, will orbit the Moon. What about a big international station on the Lunar surface? There’s no room in the budget at present for a sustainable crewed surface presence on the Moon, not with Gateway and SLS and all the ancillary systems vacuuming up all available funds.
To see how this breaks down, let’s look at what the non-Starship Artemis program looks like once it is operational and funded at $1b/year. $1b can almost fund 3 Vulcan launches to refuel the Dynetics lander, 1 Falcon Heavy to resupply Gateway, and about 1/4 of a crewed SLS/Orion launch to Gateway, though under this scheme one assumes SLS receives funds through a separate pipe. In other words, for the first decade or so of operation, $1b/year buys 2-4 astronauts 3-6 days on the Lunar surface, with some left over small change to drive a few robots around and dig some holes.
This is a slower cadence than Apollo, and has a lot more moving parts. Recall that all this complexity with Orion and Gateway and the separate lunar landers is because SLS isn’t powerful enough and Orion is too heavy to actually launch to the Moon in one go.
Let’s say we want to upgrade Artemis to build a bigger Lunar base? There is no way to scale the system. Human launches are limited by the SLS build rate of one per two years. Cargo landing capacity is limited to the small capsules on Dynetics or 50 feet from the Lunar surface (National Team), at perhaps $500m for 10 T, at best. Want to build an ISS-sized base on the Moon? That will require more than 200 Vulcan launches, 150 of which will contain only fuel tanks. It’s not scalable, and it’s not sustainable.
In contrast, $1b/year buying Lunar Starships goes a lot further. Assuming $10m per launch and 10 launches per Lunar landing for LEO refilling, $1b could transport 2000 T of cargo to the Moon per year. Each Starship could carry dozens of astronauts to and from the Lunar surface, without any need for Gateway or Lunar ISRU. Of course, if Lunar oxygen was available, each Starship could deliver more like 500 T of cargo per landing, and total annual up mass could near 10,000 T of cargo, once GTO refilling and TEI aerocapture becomes standard practice.
Want to upgrade Starship Artemis? The system is flexible and fungible. The Starship payload is big enough to transport a huge variety of modules, capsules, or cargo to the Moon. The launch cadence is measured in, at most, weeks. Ramping flight rate leverages total reuse, low unit cost, and relatively easy variant development. Want to work through the backlog of European and Japanese astronauts looking for a mission? No problem – let’s hire some more!
The entire ISS weighs about 400 T and took three decades to build. In contrast, $1b/year with Starship could land a station the size of the ISS on the Moon in about 2 months, and rapidly build out a Lunar base comparable to McMurdo Antarctic Station, with space for hundreds of researchers to live for extended periods.
There would even be enough money left over to buy lunar surface modules, airlocks, dust mitigation mechanisms, rovers, telehandlers, tunnel boring machines, bulldozers, solar panels, and all the other cool stuff from the usual collection of space contractors. In other words, let SpaceX compete on cost/tonne and tonnes/year and let other companies develop strengths in supporting technologies.
[Edit May 12 2021: I was equally surprised that NASA went with SpaceX alone for the HLS contract, and that National Team (in particular) and Dynetics rushed to file a protest. Of course, doing so is within their rights and almost standard practice, but it seems to neglect looking at the big picture. Starship breaks the game in a way that ultimately helps all the other competitors too. I can certainly understand Bezos’ disappointment that Blue Moon won’t deliver the next astronauts to the Moon first, but the time to do something about that was five years ago, not after the HLS announcement. SpaceX’s transformative price reductions will almost certainly lead to enormous induced demand for more space products. It’s not a zero sum game. Being able to build a real Lunar base for sensible money means that there is suddenly demand for all the ancillary systems necessary to actually build one.
The alternative is to sit around and let SpaceX continue to seize the initiative and build out yet another industrial vertical that the incumbents cannot hope to compete with. Earth to Caterpillar, Boeing, Lockheed, DuPont… do you read me? Come to the table with a technically credible piece of the Lunar/Mars base puzzle and Elon might leave your industry alone. Build out a space division focused on iterating real hardware and recruitment/retention difficulties will go away. There’s a lot of upside to getting with the program.]
Of course, SpaceX will continue to develop Starship regardless of the HLS contract results. But at $2.4b, it’s a bargain for NASA to keep its hand in the program and ensure decent branding rights when, inevitably, Starship does the heavy lifting for future Moon and Mars bases.
The simplicity and attractiveness of this approach cannot be ignored. No need to rely on SLS, or endure its cost and low cadence as a rate limiting step. No need to worry about surface refueling. Don’t waste another penny on Gateway. No need to invest in low-productivity intermediate infrastructure of demonstrably negative utility. If Blue Origin wants to build enormous space stations, let them do it! But why put NASA’s limited money and engineering attention into bandaid solutions to fundamental problems that will continue to clutter the critical path, forever?
In Starship, Artemis at last has a chance to get off the ground. Are we wise enough to use it?