Another entry into my blog series on countering misconceptions in space journalism. I discussed this post on The Space Show on November 5 2021.
It has been exactly two years since my initial posts on Starship and Starlink. While the Starlink post has aged quite well, Starship is still not widely understood despite intervening developments. As usual, this blog represents my own opinions and I do not have any inside information.
There is now an audio version of this blog.
To catch you up, two years ago SpaceX unveiled their boilerplate full scale mockup of Starship. Starhopper had completed two untethered flights. SN5 and SN6 hopped to 150 m in August and September of 2020, followed by 10-12 km flights of SN8, SN9, SN10, SN11, and SN15 between December 2020 and May 2021, the last of which stuck the landing.
Two years ago, Raptor was unproven, aero flaps had never been demonstrated, and stainless steel rocket construction was still troubled. Today, these major programmatic risks are largely retired. SpaceX has qualified their full flow staged combustion engine. They’ve done a full system test of the landing process, and they’ve ramped up QA in construction. There are still major risks on the critical path between now and a fully reusable Starship, but no miracles are required to solve them. For example, many mature heat shield (TPS) designs already exist. SpaceX can try to make a better, cheaper, lighter one but if it doesn’t work out, they can always trade some mass and just use PICA, like Dragon. In just two years, practically all the low TRL science projects have been solved.
As of late October 2021, SN20 and the booster SB4 have performed basic fit checks and individual static fires, while the ground support equipment and the launch tower are being assembled with truly gigantic cranes. The Boca Chica rocket factory and launch site are now enormous ongoing operations, as seen in this video tour with Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut.
While I am 100% certain that the Starship design will continue to evolve in noticeable ways, the progress in two years cannot be understated. Two years ago Starship was a design concept and a mock up. Today it’s a 95% complete prototype that will soon fly to space and may even make it back in one piece.
The odds of Starship actually working in the near future are much higher today than they were two years ago. Across the industry, decisions are being made on a time horizon in which Starship operation is relevant, and yet it is not being correctly accounted for.
Starship matters. It’s not just a really big rocket, like any other rocket on steroids. It’s a continuing and dedicated attempt to achieve the “Holy Grail” of rocketry, a fully and rapidly reusable orbital class rocket that can be mass manufactured. It is intended to enable a conveyor belt logistical capacity to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) comparable to the Berlin Airlift. That is, Starship is a powerful logistical system that puts launch below the API.
Starship is designed to be able to launch bulk cargo into LEO in >100 T chunks for <$10m per launch, and up to thousands of launches per year. By refilling in LEO, a fully loaded deep space Starship can transport >100 T of bulk cargo anywhere in the solar system, including the surface of the Moon or Mars, for <$100m per Starship. Starship is intended to be able to transport a million tonnes of cargo to the surface of Mars in just ten launch windows, in addition to serving other incidental destinations, such as maintaining the Starlink constellation or building a big base at the Lunar south pole.
The fact that Starship flown expendably would be perhaps 10 times cheaper, in terms of dollars per tonne, than even Falcon is not relevant. For the last two years, space community responses to Starship can often be summarized as “Starship would be awesome! I can customize one or two and do my pet mission for cheap.” This is true, but it misses the point.
First, SpaceX is unlikely to spend a lot of engineering effort doing custom one offs for otherwise obscure science missions. Find a way to fit the mission in the payload fairing and join the queue with everyone else trying to burn down their manifest as quickly as possible.
Second, and more importantly, shoehorning Cassini 2.0 or Mars Direct into Starship fails to adequately exploit the capabilities of the launch system. Not to pick on Cassini or Mars Direct, but both of these missions were designed with inherent constraints that are not relevant to Starship. In fact, all space missions whether robotic or crewed, historical or planned, have been designed with constraints that are not relevant to Starship.
What does this mean? Historically, mission/system design has been grievously afflicted by absurdly harsh mass constraints, since launch costs to LEO are as high as $10,000/kg and single launches cost hundreds of millions. This in turn affects schedule, cost structure, volume, material choices, labor, power, thermal, guidance/navigation/control, and every other aspect of the mission. Entire design languages and heuristics are reinforced, at the generational level, in service of avoiding negative consequences of excess mass. As a result, spacecraft built before Starship are a bit like steel weapons made before the industrial revolution. Enormously expensive as a result of embodying a lot of meticulous labor, but ultimately severely limited compared to post-industrial possibilities.
Starship obliterates the mass constraint and every last vestige of cultural baggage that constraint has gouged into the minds of spacecraft designers. There are still constraints, as always, but their design consequences are, at present, completely unexplored. We need a team of economists to rederive the relative elasticities of various design choices and boil them down to a new set of design heuristics for space system production oriented towards maximizing volume of production. Or, more generally, maximizing some robust utility function assuming saturation of Starship launch capacity. A dollar spent on mass optimization no longer buys a dollar saved on launch cost. It buys nothing. It is time to raise the scope of our ambition and think much bigger.
Apollo was limited by the lift capacity of a single Saturn V to use a lunar orbit rendezvous architecture, in which just two astronauts sortied to the surface for a few hours. Every NASA mission to any planet has to be a marvel of miniaturization, just to cram as much science as possible into a severely mass constrained space craft. The Artemis program to the Moon requires a Gateway and separate Human Landing System (HLS) because even the SLS doesn’t have enough lift capacity to execute the mission on its own. The HLS request specified performance requirements that only make sense if the launchers are not Starship, and are objectively inadequate for any kind of serious base building or long term sustainable presence.
Starship changes this paradigm. Starship won the HLS contract because of the three bids only it delivered a system that actually closed. But more than that, Starship could be used for the entire Artemis program, and probably will if the program continues. Indeed, for the same annual cost Starship could deliver perhaps 100x as much cargo to and from the Moon, meaning that instead of two or three dinky 10 T crew habs over the next decade, we could actually build and launch a base that could house 1000 people in a year or two. We probably won’t, but we could.
This cuts to the core of the problem. Why won’t we upgrade Artemis to actually use the capacity of Starship? Because Starship is somehow less proven or likely than SLS and Vulcan? Please! No, Artemis is still trapped in a pre-Starship paradigm where each kilogram costs a million dollars and we must aggressively descope our ambition. This approach is evidently self defeating.
To make this concrete, compare these two bat charts for pre- and post-Starship Artemis conops.
Even though Starship was selected for HLS, Artemis hasn’t been redesigned, because Starship is still not understood at the organizational level.
Nowhere was this clearer than the September 26, 2021 NASA press conference where Administrator Senator Bill Nelson spent 45 minutes discussing the future of Human Spaceflight at NASA. The town hall was to announce the reorg of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) into the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) and the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD), reversing an org chart change made about a decade ago.
My main takeaway from this wasn’t speculation as to whether Kathy Lueders had been demoted, but the observation that in 45 minutes of conversation about the future of human space flight at NASA, Starship wasn’t mentioned once. The gigantic rocket that is poised to improve our access to space by three orders of magnitude just didn’t come up.
I know that SpaceX and Starship are controversial in certain circles at NASA, but what purpose does it serve to maintain a policy of quietly ignoring it forever? I know dozens of people in the US space industry who basically agree with everything I’ve written about Starship, and yet the official policy sails serenely on as though Falcon has never even landed.
Starship will change the way we do business in space, and now is the time to start preparing. Pretending that it doesn’t exist isn’t an adequate strategic hedge, whether Starship flies in 2022, 2025, or never.
What do I mean by strategic hedge? There is a steadily increasing chance that Starship will succeed and total certainty that if it succeeds it will change the industry, therefore the appropriate hedge is to take actions somewhere between total panic that it is already flying, and complete inaction. The cost of preparing and Starship not eventuating is lower than the cost of Starship flying while NASA is still unprepared. As of today, continuing inaction by the legacy space industry continues to accrue fundamental structural risk. Starship is mostly good news. It certainly doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom, but acting as though it can never change anything serves only to increase the chance that it does bring about negative changes in future.
What sort of negative changes am I referring to? The US space industry has a strategic blind spot in this direction. Ask a room of engineers and scientists what they can do with Starship and the response will be enthusiastic, to say the least. 100 T of science instruments on Titan in just four years? Sign me up! Ask a room full of program managers how they will avoid negative programmatic consequences due to Starship launch capability and you will probably get blank stares.
Let me explain the fundamental issue. NASA centers and their contractors build exquisitely complex and expensive robots to launch on conventional rockets and explore the universe. To take JPL as an example, divide the total budget by the mass of spacecraft shipped to the cape and it works out to about $1,000,000/kg. I’m not certain how much mass NASA launches to space per year but, even including ISS, it cannot be much more than about 50 T. This works out to between $100,000/kg for LEO bulk cargo and >$1,000,000/kg for deep space exploration.
Enter Starship. Annual capacity to LEO climbs from its current average of 500 T for the whole of our civilization to perhaps 500 T per week. Eventually, it could exceed 1,000,000 T/year. At the same time, launch costs drop as low as $50/kg, roughly 100x lower than the present. For the same budget in launch, supply will have increased by roughly 100x. How can the space industry saturate this increased launch supply?
I doubt Congress is going to increase NASA’s budget to a trillion dollars, so NASA and industry will have to find a way to produce 100x as much stuff for 1/10th the price. Rovers will have to be $1000/kg and we will need 100 T of them every year. This is comparable in terms of costs and volumes to Ferrari manufacturing, so we’re not necessarily talking about replicating Toyota’s automated production lines, but we are definitely talking about finding ways to drastically increase the productivity of the current work force, while shifting its skill focus away from mass optimization and towards mass generation. Since the mass constraint really doesn’t matter anymore, there isn’t much point devoting hundreds of person-years of effort into assembling the whole thing from custom machined titanium parts.
This is where the risk to the space industry originates. Prior to Starship, heavy machinery for building a Moon base could only come from NASA, because only NASA has the expertise to build a rocket propelled titanium Moon tractor for a billion dollars per unit. After Starship, Caterpillar or Deere or Kamaz can space qualify their existing commodity products with very minimal changes and operate them in space. In all seriousness, some huge Caterpillar mining truck is already extremely rugged and mechanically reliable. McMaster-Carr already stocks thousands of parts that will work in mines, on oil rigs, and any number of other horrendously corrosive, warranty voiding environments compared to which the vacuum of space is delightfully benign. A space-adapted tractor needs better paint, a vacuum compatible hydraulic power source, vacuum-rated bearings, lubricants, wire insulation, and a redundant remote control sensor kit. I can see NASA partnering with industry to produce and test these parts, but that is no way to service the institutional overhead embodied by a team of hundreds of people toiling on a single mission for a decade. There is a reason that JPL’s business depends on a steady stream of directed flagship missions with billion dollar price tags. Hordes of PhDs don’t come cheap and need a lot of care and feeding.
Even if the space industry fully understood Starship, I think it would be very difficult for them to plan and adapt rapidly enough to match the coming explosion in launch capacity. But it has been two years since my earlier post and the implications were obvious enough even then. Yet I have seen almost no evidence that, on an organizational level, any of the prime contractors or senior NASA leadership have internalized the full implications of the coming change.
History is littered with the wreckage of former industrial titans that underestimated the impact of new technology and overestimated their ability to adapt. Blockbuster, Motorola, Kodak, Nokia, RIM, Xerox, Yahoo, IBM, Atari, Sears, Hitachi, Polaroid, Toshiba, HP, Palm, Sony, PanAm, Sega, Netscape, Compaq, Enron, GM, DeLorean, Nortel. In many cases, such as with Kodak and digital cameras, these powerful corporations even invented the technology that eventually destroyed them. It was not a surprise. Everyone saw it coming. But senior management failed to recognize that adaptation would require stepping beyond the accepted bounds of their traditional business practice. Starship, like Falcon, is built on a foundation of fundamental rocketry research funded and performed by NASA, Roscosmos, and other government agencies. SpaceX has found a powerful new synthesis but they didn’t invent rockets from scratch. Either the incumbent space industry adapts to Starship by finding ways to produce much more space hardware for much lower cost, or dozens of other new companies, unbound by tradition, entrenched interests, and high organizational overhead, will permanently take their business.
Just two weeks ago, former NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration and current Boeing consultant Doug Cooke, gave a presentation on his vision for lunar exploration, as reported by Jeff Foust.
The washed out yellow on black can be hard to read, so I’ll copy the text below [grammatical errors and typos uncorrected].
Logical Early Lunar Architecture and Mission(s)
- 130 mt SLS (Block 2) as envisioned in the 2010 Authorization Act.
- Orion as presently configured.
- Develop two-stage, storable propellant lunar lander with not-to-exceed mass of 33 mT.
- Lander requirements – include cargo mode to land hab(s), rovers, surface infrastructure – separate from crew landings.
- Develop Lunar Orbit Injection (LOI) stage capable of delivering the lander to Low Lunar Orbit (LLO) using efficient Liquid Oxygen/Hydrogen fuel. Same LOI stage design for delivering Orion and service module to LLO.
- Enhance Ground Systems to support this architecture with sufficient flight rate.
- Fully fueled integrated lander is launched as cargo on the SLS Block 2 and injected by the LOI stage into LLO to await the crew.
- Crew is launched on SLS to LLO in Orion using the same LOI stage design as for the lander.
- Several tons of margin for additional cargo
- Orion performs the rendezvous with the lander in LLO
- Crew and additional equipment and provisions transfer to the ascent stage on the lander.
- With the crew onboard, the lander descends from LLO and lands on the lunar surface.
- The crew executes its surface mission
- The crew launches back to LLO in the ascent stage to rendezvous and transfer to Orion.
- The crew returns to Earth from LLO in Orion, using the Orion Service Module to perform the Trans-Earth Insertion (TEI) maneuver.
Follow-on Crew and Cargo Missions to fulfill lunar exploration objectives
Allow me to fill in the gaps. This is 98% similar to the original Constellation lunar program. It requires SLS Block 2, which has a new, upgraded upper stage. This was always meant to be part of Ares V and it’s what has always been required to make SLS actually useful, with real cargo capacity to LEO and beyond. Of course, this Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) is still in the preliminary design phase and may never actually be built let alone flown. In addition to the EUS, which is essentially a whole new rocket, this architecture also requires a Lunar Insertion Stage, also originally called for in the Constellation architecture but long since cancelled, and without which Orion can’t even make it to Low Lunar Orbit (LLO). It also requires a new two stage lander, which is still being treated almost as an afterthought.
When it’s all put together, we have an architecture rather similar to Apollo, only heavier, more expensive, slower, with more moving parts, and with about the same net cargo capacity to the surface. That is, another decade or so of incredibly expensive clean sheet development of four new space vehicles, and for what? The ability to get “several tonnes” of marginal cargo to the surface for two launches of the SLS Block 2, and to finally deliver the Lunar part of Constellation two decades late and at ten times the price, as though it was never justifiably cancelled in the first place?
Consider the two critical metrics: Dollars per tonne ($/T) and tonnes per year (T/year). Any effective space transport cargo logistics system must aggressively optimize both these metrics simultaneously. Starship is intended to reach numbers as low as $1m/T and 1000 T/year for cargo soft landed on the Moon. Apollo achieved about $2b/T and 2 T/year for cargo soft landed on the Moon. Constellation 2.0 as described above would be more like $4b/T and 2 T/year.
Not only is this architecture obviously worse than Starship, it’s also significantly worse than Apollo or any existing lunar delivery system. For example, the Blue Moon lander could be flown on Falcon Heavy, delivering perhaps 10 T to the surface for <$200m. Indeed, the Constellation architecture is worse than the current state-of-the-art by roughly the same factor that Starship promises to be better. That is, it takes the key metrics of $/T and T/year and runs as far as possible in the wrong direction. It is also a programmatic dead end, since none of the individual components can be upgraded in a meaningful way without restarting development of the entire system from scratch. It’s an expensive, interlocking failure. What “lunar exploration objectives” can be “fulfilled” with such an architecture? There is no possibility for a sustainable program, no possibility for continuous human presence or base building. Just tens of billions of dollars on obsolete hardware serving ill-defined programmatic goals that lost their geopolitical relevancy on July 24, 1969.
Obviously it is NASA, Cooke, and Boeing’s prerogative to propose programs that serve their particular respective interests, but what I don’t understand is how they can seriously think that ignoring Starship can help them. Indeed, Boeing is in prime position to greatly increase the scale and revenue of their space hardware business if they can scale production to saturate Starship’s launch capacity. Boeing can make much more money building Lunar cargo for Starship transportation, because they’ll be shipping thousands of tonnes a year while building an expansive future and opening a new economic frontier. Would they prefer that SpaceX be compelled to verticalize in the Lunar base hardware space and own yet another colossal tranche of future value creation? At this point, the real fear of other industry players should be that SpaceX won’t even ask them to try. Instead, they’ll wake up one morning and find that all their ambitious junior engineers have taken a pay cut and moved to Texas, while no-one can work out why Starliner’s valves refuse to work properly.
This is why I think Starship is not understood. Understanding the risks and benefits of Starship would drive very different adaptive behavior than what we can see, ergo Starship is not understood, ergo I write yet another blog about it.
In October 2019 I explained why Starship and Starlink were such a big deal. In October 2023, looking back, what may have taken place?
It is hard to predict when the Starship design will stabilize, but I predict that SpaceX’s efforts in this area will only accelerate. As incredible as the progress at Boca Chica seems today, in two years time today’s rocket factory will look like the lonely tents of 2019. We’ll have Starships lined up along the beach, multiple launch towers reaching into the sky, and a series of high bays doing serial production. As SpaceX methodically retires programmatic risk in terms of Starship performance and reusability, engineering focus will shift towards the next constraints on the critical path, but not before. These constraints include deep space life support, robotics, and human-focused Lunar and Mars surface habitation. If NASA and other industry players don’t rapidly shift into high gear to provide the nine key needed space technologies, expect to see SpaceX spool up internal R&D in these areas. The earliest signs of this occurring will be obscure-looking job postings and quiet recruitment efforts, so if you notice your friends and colleagues inexplicably moving to South Texas or Austin, that’s why.
Meanwhile, it is reasonable to expect that the SLS will eventually attempt a launch, perhaps even with people on board. As Starship design converges, other launch companies (in particular Relativity, Blue, and Rocketlab) will adapt the design for their own reusable launchers, eventually driving down launch prices for third parties. Artemis will continue to limp awkwardly on with occasional half-hearted press releases, Eric Berger scoops, and middling budgets. At some point Starship will demonstrate an automated Lunar landing and return with a few tonnes of Moon rocks and either NASA will have branding rights, or they won’t. Starship will launch robots to Mars for landing site surveys and selection. While it is likely that NASA will be involved in this mission, I doubt they will pay for it or provide much/any hardware, unless there is a ride-along payload that would ordinarily have launched on an Atlas, or a few cubesats. Some (dozens) of these robots will be VTOL aircraft to perform extended surveys, building on the legacy of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter but otherwise designed and operated very differently.
Perhaps JPL will continue to produce a flagship mission every decade or so. Perhaps the ice giants of Uranus and Neptune will get some attention, along with continuing efforts towards Mars Sample Return and participation in the Titan octocopter. These will expand our knowledge of planetary science in important ways, but as it stands neither JPL nor other NASA centers are well positioned to be the natural producers of any large subset of necessary Lunar/Mars base infrastructure, so I don’t expect to see them there, except perhaps as ride-along tenants.
In the meantime, other companies will spring up to exploit Starship’s improved access to space, procuring rides to the Moon, Mars, or asteroids for prospecting, entrepreneurship, services provision, national prestige missions, giant space stations, orbital factories, LEO constellations, and anything else one can dream up.
In my opinion, this is a huge tragedy. NASA is in the midst of the biggest opportunity since its founding in 1958. Starship can catalyze the organizational shifts necessary to once again align NASA’s workforce towards a technically coherent vision. We could have every NASA center churning out world-building machines by the truckload, building critical infrastructure that forms the backbone of humanity’s leap to a multiplanetary civilization. For example, JSC is the natural place to leverage decades of human spaceflight experience and develop futuristic life support machinery. Ames and JPL should be building fully automated construction management machinery. Glenn should partner with midwestern machinery manufacturers to build and operate Lunar and Mars environmental test systems and qualify a catalog of space-compatible commodity parts and retrofits. Marshall and KSC should build out containerized space power plants and enable launch cadence increases from ~1/week to ~1/hour. Goddard and Langley should oversee development of ambitious scientific research programs to be conducted from permanently occupied Lunar and Mars bases. Armstrong should coordinate supporting development work by the specialist contractors doing Lunar surface operations.
It should be impossible to not see a NASA logo anywhere on the coming generation of space stations and planetary bases, but this outcome is far from guaranteed. It certainly will not occur if the Artemis program continues to steadfastly ignore architectural economies offered by Starship. It certainly will not occur if NASA squanders these valuable years of transition waiting forlornly, as it has for decades, for Congress to accidentally turn the money supply up to eleven.
It may take a year or three, but Starship will happen and it will change everything. While the major industry players continue to not take Starship seriously, it is safe to say that Starship is not understood.
189 thoughts on “Starship is Still Not Understood”
My guess, right at this moment, is that Starship’s launch capacity won’t get saturated. People are willing to pay the going rate for internet access, and they’re willing to let the government spend a few cents of their taxes on space. Every large university will be able to have its own space telescope, and its own constellation of Earth-observing satellites: those will attract some spending that doesn’t currently exist, but only some. SpaceX will presumably self-fund some launches to Mars.
But I don’t see any likely way of funding Mars, the moon, and so on at a level that would support the volume of launches that Starship will be capable of. When something gets cheaper by orders of magnitude, a new section of the demand curve is revealed. Often, the quantity demanded increases by an even greater factor, so that the total revenue for the sector increases. But “let’s build a city on Mars” isn’t a normal commodity.
If Starship hits their $$ to orbit figure, that should free up a bunch of money in the NASA budget used for buying launches, making it available for payloads. That may generate orders for SpaceX.
One thing that many space enthusiasts don’t seem to realize is that absent some major international development, the NASA budget will stay about where it is as a percentage of “discretionary” federal outlays, getting a small inflation increase each year. That’s all Congress has the interest in doing.
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SpaceX won’t lower their prices to match their costs. Its just not how it works. I think they’ll go down, but they won’t be offering launches at 1/4 (or even 1/2) the market price.
The only exception being that it becomes clear that it actually makes business sense for them to do so – if at some new price point they are able to get 10-15x the business, it may actually make sense to reduce the cost down to 1/4 of what it is now.
Long-term, its going to be interesting to see how things play out in the market and with government contracts.
Also, its worth pointing out that even if NASA got every penny back that SpaceX saved launching with Starship, it wouldn’t have as big of an impact on NASA’s overall budget as people think. I don’t think NASA has more than 10-12 launches per year that it books with contractors. So, even if SpaceX gave NASA free rides to space it’d only save them $1.2-1.4 billion. That’s if they are free and include the crewed launches that are currently serious money makers for SpaceX. Don’t get me wrong… its a lot of money, but that’s if its 100% free… and even then its only about 5-6% of their budget
A bigger deal will be if they replace the entire Artemis infrastructure with Starship. No need for Orion, SLS, CSM, SLS launch infrastructure, etc. Now we’re talking $3-4 billion/year… just with that!
I agree it’s going to be hard for third parties to capture some of the value of lower starship launch costs, unless a competitor enters the space and wants market share, or the third party has significant strategic alignment with SpaceX.
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> SpaceX won’t lower their prices to match their costs. Its just not how it works. I think they’ll go down, but they won’t be offering launches at 1/4 (or even 1/2) the market price.
This ignores (1) elasticity of demand, and (2) economies of scale.
If they can sell 100 launches per year at $100M/launch, but they can sell 10,000 launches per year at $10M/launch, then the high price earns them $10 billion in revenue and the low price earns them $100 billion.
Given the large economies of scale with reusable Starships, the profit margin could well be the same either way.
“So, even if SpaceX gave NASA free rides to space it’d only save them $1.2-1.4 billion.”
If launch costs were free (or very cheap relative to current levels), payload cost would also plummet. Billions of dollars are spent optimizing probes for mass, as discussed in this article. A huge majority of this spending could be eliminated if Starship is as successful as hoped
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If launch costs were free… but they won’t be (I was exaggerating to highlight the total launch costs per year, that’s all). Instead each launch will be bid on and costs will remain high, even if SpaceXs own costs plummet. They may drop a little, but both DOD and NASA will continue to use at least two launch providers as a means of maintaining the aerospace industrial base. The price bid by SpaceX will never be, imo, less than 1/2 of the other bidders… probably more like 2/3 to 3/4 of them.
Yes, optimization will be less intensive since the size of the fairing will increase, but this article also points out that the vast majority of payloads to LEO are far below the max allowable. The satellites in many instances could be much larger or flown with other cargo…. but they aren’t. Yes, in some cases its a tight fit and they need to be optimized, but that isn’t always the case. Will it make a difference for some payloads? Sure.
In summary, as long as there are competitive contracts, costs will remain relatively high and the cavernous fairing size and ability to carry 100-150t will only benefit some payloads… the design for others may not change at all. Moreover, even if SpaceX is able to leverage a single launch for both NASA and commercial payloads, it doesn’t mean NASA will benefit fully from that sharing. NASA may get a discount for allowing to SpaceX to launch additional satellites with theirs, but it will still be a lot.
First thing that comes to mind: UAE.
They are building a dreamscape on earth right now. Apart from the ethical factors, they want to be HUGE in tourism. To undercatch the eventual loss of oil dollars.
So, first contract to get 20 Starships with 100T load into space: Build a Space Hotel. 7 stars. Run with the most excuisite setting you can imagine.
Next one: Moon Hotel.
Space tourism will EXPLODE…
Many years ago at Boeing I did an analysis of what the payload impact would be if we built a fully-reusable launch system (which we were doing a study of at the time) The intent was to figure out the effect on payload traffic if launch costs went down.
If you plot hardware cost vs stress level, from concrete to spacecraft carbon composites, cost per kg tends to go as the 3/2 power of stress. An optimal payload design has a marginal cost of making it lighter equal to the marginal cost of launch. So if launch cost goes down, you build it with heavier and cheaper materials with lower stress levels, and you spend less engineering time trying to save weight.
This is a separate effect from market changes due to price. For example, at $50 million a seat, only a handful of space tourists will buy a ticket. At $500,000 a lot more will buy tourist tickets, and some industrial operations will send employees up to work. At $5,000 millions of people would want to go. Entire market sectors that are priced out of existence today become opportunities.
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The Russians have been refueling their segment of the ISS for years.
Refueling ISS is a much easier job than moving tens or hundreds of tons of fuel. In particular, with a small enough amount of fuel, an elastic bladder and pressurized air can push out fuel without bubbles. When the amount is large, that doesn’t work, and you have to move to “ullage” methods involving acceleration of some sort.
I don’t know if anybody has tried putting propellers inside the tank to get the fuel spinning, so that the bubbles congregate around the center line.
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A fully reusable Starship is the manifestation of the Single-Stage-to-orbit SSTO dream many of my generation grew up on.
Of course, we’d imagined an aeroplane design that takes-off like a regular airliner but somehow makes it to orbit by switching onto propellent at the right places.
Subconsciously perhaps, what was exciting about that vision was the scale economies afforded by bringing a mass-produced, mass-deployable, commercially and market-competitive airliner model to space flight.
Fascinating article! I also just read your article from two years ago about the economic unviability of asteroid mining.
I’m curious how you expect Starship to change that equation, as the $100/g cost to return material from LEO to Earth would surely be reduced by several orders of magnitude.
Still a very restricted set of possible commodities that could be worth while transporting in that direction.
Fascinating post. Love the way you’re approaching the disruptive potential of Mr Musk’s rockets.
If it’s much cheaper/kg to send stuff to the solar system, as you say this removes various constraints on what can be done. Cheaper turnkey installed cost at some planetary, asteroid or interesting Trojan/Lagrange point etc of power, comms, sensors, computing, material handling on mobile and stationary platforms means that we could put a lot of stuff at a wide range of sites.
And the levelised transmission cost/TB sent back to earth would plummet compared to current costs.
So an interesting exercise would be to look at what commercially useful off-earth knowledge/data is currently constrained by launch costs and the limitations that puts on kit delivered somewhere interesting.
Agree that DSN is ripe for a major upgrade.
If you had more transmitter power in space, presumably you could have cheaper antenna here.
And you could have comms relay nodes dotted around the solar system.
Solar is attractive as a power source in space but less insolation as you move further out which has favored RTG power systems for applications distant from the sun. But with cheap/kg maybe that balance changes back to more solar.
We’ve had something similar with terrestrial PV where the focus was for many years on ground mount single and multi axis tracking to maximise generation from expensive panels. But as solar has got so cheap in Australia the most cost-effective deployment is systems mounted flat to a rooftop even if pitch and azimuth aren’t ideal. Less to go wrong, minimal racking etc
It seems to me that you expect NASA to change drastically to a “vastly better” (admittedly) architecture, before they know it will work. What NASA builds (SLS) will be basically guaranteed to work, but is too costly and slow. The new paradigm change to Starship looks appealing from all angles, but changing the architecture before it’s ever even been flown seems premature. I think we all know the change is coming, but you can’t turn to rely on these components until they’ve been shown to work. Almost undoubtedly they will be shown to work, and -just as likely- NASA will switch architecture. But to do so 2 years ago, or even now, is still a bit premature in my opinion. HLS selected the spacex architecture for a reason. Once we see it work, it will become the architecture.
SLS will work, except that the parts that make it useful were cancelled and the parts that make it cheap do not exist, while the parts that make it too unsafe for humans were politically compulsory.
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It seems essential to mention that, not only has SLS *not flown either*, it will not even be ready to try out flying until long after SuperHeavy has been already proved out.
So, this is not comparing a pie-in-the-sky efficient solution to an expensive, lumpen, but trusted workhorse. Neither is ready, but the “trusted workhorse” is a Rube Goldberg contraption not one of whose parts has ever flown.
Not much of Starship has flown besides its Raptor engines and a version of its attitude-control flaps, but that should be different by this day next month, FAA permitting.
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The Artemis proposal is, line for line, the cancelled ‘Constellation’ proposal. They haven’t even changed the name of the capsule! That is probably a good thing, too — renaming the capsule would probably add another US $10B to the cost of the program.
Constellation was cancelled; for extremely good reasons. Trying to pass off a crappy, more expensive & delayed re-hash of Constellation is absolutely embarrassing & inexcusable — it is an inexecrable waste of effort, time, and funds.
It certainly is NASA’s job to move on from a cancelled program, to one which is less expensive & more capable; no matter what form such a successor program may take. They have, for more than a decade, failed to do so.
Came here from Silicon Graybeard. This is a really good article on SpaceX/Starship. I have had similar thoughts about Starship. I had a discussion with a manager who was a friend at the large aerospace company I retired from about this. He believed SpaceX to be only a competitor, while I saw and still see them as taking a wholly different path.
Some other commentors have expressed the same concern I have that Government will get in the way of SpaceX’s progress much more than they have already. The “old way” of doing business is entrenched in NASA and their contractors and their reaction to SpaceX is literally fighting for life as they know it. Casey Handmer’s analysis is spot on with the respect of the need to change.
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I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. While understandably you try to raise the awareness in your agency and it’s main contractors, I take a more optimistic view. So far cost/mass and mass/launch are the two real breakers for the business case of any tentative economic activity in space. Under the current circumstances anything space must be small and awfully expensive to make any sense whatsoever. If starship succeeds, both these killers are gone. This will be a huge opportunity for businesses far and wide. And they will take it. By breaking in the meantime all the space industry taboos, just as SpaceX does today. Will this also mean that NASA and its good old contractors will fade into irrelevance? Maybe. Or maybe not. Certainly they will be changed. Forever.
Even if Starship does not succeed, the blasphemous way they build and test rockets on the beach in the middle of a dusty and dirty construction site, proves to anyone that the way space industry works and operates is beautifully fancy, but not truly justified.
You’ve written a compelling article. If you want to reach a greater audience, you could contact Jeff Foust at The Space Review and adapt a version of your article to be published there.https://www.thespacereview.com/submissions.html
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I’m sure Jeff can cover this!
I don’t know what “TRL” means, and the definition I know for “API” does not seem to fit the context.
I would suggest that you expand more of the uncommon acronyms on first use, but “uncommon” is fuzzy. Since I’ve been following Starship, I know what SN12 and PICA are, for example. Anyone who doesn’t already know what “NASA” stands for is unlikely to get anything out of the article. I just suggest that the fuzzy line be shifted some.
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Thanks! I usually try to define acronyms. TRL is “technology readiness level”.
Never count your chickens before they are hatched. Starship still has a very long development road ahead of it. And I can already see problems with the design. Efficiency is major problem for Starship. Any Starship launch to a far orbit (cis-lunar or Martian) requires multiple Starship launches with orbital refueling. This logistical complexity may could easily become a problem if Starship serviceability isn’t 100%.
Propulsive landing is obviously more dangerous than using parachutes or wings to land like an airplane (Space Shuttle.) This is too risky for NASA, and may be too risky for SpaceX as well. And it only gets worse (much worse) when Raptor Engines sit idle in space for months between destinations -incapable of being services.
The final problem with Starship is purely political. Colonizing Mars when we have serious problems that need to be addressed here on Earth is completely insane. It would be like Donald Trump abandoning Mar-A-Lago to focus his attention on turning the Uni-bomber’s tiny shack in rural Montana into an Air BNB. Earth is the Crown Jewel of the Solar System, and the ONLY place in the Solar System where humans can play outside in the sun .. without a spacesuit.
Interesting debate here at NSF forum
One man named Jim, one of the industry, keep trying to ignore Starship because it’s unproven & keep changing “please don’t design a science payloads there until it’s proven”
NASA is like a horse forced to wear blinkers by its political masters who can hold (or withhold) the nosebag as they choose; it does what it can within its constraints to support promising developments and position for the future. Frankly JPL’s hordes of PhDs should be directed to solve politics as this would address the root cause of so many problems.
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Er, the real purpose of “Starship” is to be able to launch hundreds of Starlink satellites at once. Starlink will provide important benefits like online gaming in Nunavut, Siberia, and central Australia while ruining the night sky for 7 billion people and vastly increasing orbital debris. Starship will never go to Mars. Get a clue, people.
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Having manufactured the vehicles, and with production lines cranking them out, some use will need to be found for them.
Suborbital passenger service might come to absorb a fair few of them. They might as well be used to establish and keep supplied long-term orbital and lunar bases, and to carry a series of very large probes to the outer solar system. How many will that absorb?
Anyway we will need to loft a hell of a lot of telescopes to substitute for the ground-based ones rendered suddenly useless.
T.L.D.R.: “I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision…”
I’m a bit more optimistic on the current industry’s future, and after all HLS funds still come from the government (a self-sustained space economy has still a long way to go); it’s in the best interest of NASA to see SpaceX succeed and repeat Kennedy’s dream, but once (if) Starship will actually leave the ground, they’ll be forced to evolve in this new direction, both from the realization of what this vehicle is capable of and from public pressure. (Especially if Starship Orbital Test Flight launches before Artemis 1. Boy, that would be impossible to ignore).
(or even Starship reaching a major goal before anyone expects it, like HLS landing before Artemis 2)
Omg, and here it is–the first time I’ve actually seen anyone admit this in an actual article:
“For now, the initial flights [of Starship] would carry Musk’s internet satellites, called Starlinks, into orbit.”
What did I just say two weeks ago up above? As much as I’d love to see Starship or any other vehicle go to Mars, it’s just a smoke screen, a ruse by Musk to help slip his Starlink atrocity into orbit. Bye bye night sky.
SpaceX has always said that Starlink would be their primary revenue source to fund Mars.
I’ve never heard that before. Do you have any links to articles that mention Starlink as a revenue source to fund Mars? In any event, that still sounds like a smoke screen.
Btw, I forgot to include the link for the quote in my previous comment above:
It is a revenue source. There is no evidence yet to show how that revenue will be used.
Billionaire do vanity projects have precedents. At least we can be certain that no self-sufficient Mars colony will happen, because that is far beyond our capability.
“Billionaire vanity projects do have precedents.” Sigh.
Seriously? Although brilliance certainly lies among us, most Americans are dumber than a box of rocks. It’s a surprise that Starship is misunderstood? Ask your neighbor to explain gas prices. It’s comical.
Hey, I’m a geologist. But seriously, that’s pretty funny as well as true. You could follow it up by trying to explain gas prices or the real purpose of “Starship” *to* your intellectually challenged neighbor.