Starship is Still Not Understood

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.

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.

SN9 on the pad (wikimedia).

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.

Conops as envisioned in original Artemis HLS RFP. The two unsuccessful bids followed this model. Each 12 T lander cycle costs at least $6b.
Artemis designed around Starship capability looks completely different, because it is. Each 100 T lander cycle costs less than $100m.

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.

HEOMD reorg NASA townhall September 26 2021.

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.

Doug Cooke’s slide on Lunar Exploration Oct 12 2021 (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.

Lunar Mission

  • 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.

176 thoughts on “Starship is Still Not Understood

  1. Enjoyed this explanation/discussion. For those who never lost sight of nuclear propulsion, the necessary mission-design heuristics should come fairly naturally. We need to re-familiarize ourselves with those possibilities as Starship makes them realities…without going nuclear.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice article, an expendable Starship (with Re-useable Super Heavy) should be in future payload baseline planning. While Starship reuse might be a pyric challenge, at $40M/ship = $50/M expendable 150T to LEO Starship launch is highly likely to happen in 2023.

    Otherwise I would simply modify the two year from mockup to flight. The project has been in the works for a good 10 years at this point, leading with TM’s Raptor work and later in 2017 with that giant carbon composite fuel tank they built and scrapped. The program is probably about 2 years behind on Elon’s timeline, but 3x faster that anyone else could have done.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree, however I think that industry is still planning on the first few Starships being expendable and ignoring the next ten thousand that aren’t. Airlines generally base their business off buying the new 787 but not the first ten off the line with their various teething issues.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I heartily agree with all points but one; that NASA should be saved, or that it even could be. At some point all machines wear out. The machine that is NASA was designed and built in a vastly different technological setting for completely different political purposes, catering to a very different a set of vested interests than will soon be the case.

    Pharoahs served a useful organizing function for society once, but they are most useful now as inert tourist attractions. Hanging on to desiccated corpses for emotional reasons is not uncommon, but certainly won’t get us to the stars. Institutions are subject to the forces of evolution and their leaders and supporters should be acutely aware of the penalties of failure in that arena. NASA could become a wing of the Smithsonian, sharing space and gathering dust with many other quaint but no longer useful machines. The future eats the past like Stephen King’s Langoliers.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. This is an interesting perspective. I don’t have a dog in this particular fraction of the “fight”, but I will say this: one could take the point of view that any innovation’s ultimate purpose is to make itself unnecessary by engendering further innovation. The Model T was amazing and opened up America to the car. Having done so, it could safely fade away. Perhaps the innovation we called ‘NASA’ will do the same…as its ultimate triumph.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I like NASA. It’s like an old piece of iron that needs a strong magnet to realign its magnetic domains though. There is so much internal capacity, it’s just not being used as productively as it could be.

      Liked by 4 people

    3. I disagree. If private space exploration takes off, I feel NASA could be an oversight organisation like FAA that regulates the industry and sets standards. No need to kill off NASA


    4. I don’t care what you call the organization, but something needs to be able to develop systems and technologies that don’t yet have a profitable business plan. Even with Starship, building a moon base isn’t going to be profitable within a ten-year time horizon. Neither is spinning up lunar ISRU, both for water and for metals. Private companies simply won’t be able to attract the capital needed for these kinds of high-risk, long-time-horizon projects.

      That’s what NASA is for, along with about a zillion other government-funded technology incubators.

      The mistake NASA is making is that they’re investing more heavily in things that already can be done profitably by private industry, with the nuttiest one of all being launch. The trick is to take all the political deals and arm-twisting that were done to build up the intricate lattice of supply-chain pork needed for SLS and Orion and re-purpose it to making rovers and habs, power systems, comm systems, mining equipment, and logistical support systems. None of that stuff is profitable–yet. So doing it under NASA’s auspices is essential.

      Liked by 3 people

    5. I think that TheRadicalModerate’s post below gives a good counter argument of what NASA _should_ be. Not that it is that ideal at the moment.


    1. Surprisingly little, which is a credit to the organization. But I also try to be fair. This isn’t because anyone is being stupid, it’s because the organization is not well structured to respond to these sorts of changes.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This was a great article. I watched SpaceX’s most recent Starship hype video on Twitter and I was struck by how we’ll look back on this early development at Boca Chica as so critical to the next few centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brilliant – and yet NASA is trying now to lock in a long term commitment to decades of SLS & Orion. They have just issued a RFI on how to transfer the production and operation of SLS & EGS to a commercial group.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Remember that the primary goal of NASA, as far as Congress is concerned, is to provide jobs for tech people.


    1. It is an exit strategy. If they can shuffle off SLS to some corporate pigeon, it becomes the pigeon’s problem. If they can’t, that demonstrates it is not worth anything. Even if they sell it off for a penny on the dollar, it will still cost as much to loft each new one. Who would be willing to pay?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Is that specifically the responsibility due to NASA itself, or “upper management” politicians directing NASA’s planning so as to not kick over any existing rice bowls in the several states?


      1. “Emergent” indeed, like any number of degenerative conditions. The most direct path to the required cultural metamorphosis at NASA might be accomplished in a sweat lodge using certain ethnobotanical procedures.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating and worrying. This message needs communicating to a wider public audience.
    Also, how does it change the economics of astronomy? Look at the cost and delays with JWST. Elon might be forgiven for cluttering the sky with communication satellites if he can take big telescopes into space.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Pretty clear to me that astro missions also have cost disease and switching to a “use it or lose it” launch model with much more generous payload size and weight might be able to fix it. But only if competition has a genuine chance to break the cartel of contractor profiteering.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It certainly could fix it.

        There’s zero sense in spending a billion dollars on creating a flat concrete pad on a sacred mountain top (which is about what has been spent on the 30m telescope) when you can spend 10 million dollars launching the same instrument into space.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely spot on, except for one nit. You have the price of a launch at <$10M. That's the cost, not the price. SpaceX has no competition and too many expensive projects to pay for, and the only pricing guidance we have from Elon is that the price will be lower than Falcon. So a $50M launch price seems more likely than $10M.

    Does this change any of your conclusions in any way? Not at all. A 200X reduction in cost has effects similar to a 1000X reduction in costs.

    Also, that $50M price is just for conventional missions. Like in any industry with massive margins, the price will be negotiable. If you want 50 launches or to launch something in Spacex's or Musk's interest, that $10M price will be available. After all, SpaceX still makes good margin at $10M once they get the cadence up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The final cost is hard to know in advance, and the final price depends on a lot of other factors, including competition and strategic alignment with SpaceX’s long term goals. Safe to assume that regular commercial customers or military keep paying Falcon prices for a while.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. About the only certainty we have is that the cost won’t be $10M.

      Pricewise, launches go per kg, not per event, so “cheaper than Falcon” leaves enormous wiggle room. My pedestrian expectation is that launches will be priced at what the market will bear, less whatever concessions are needed to discourage development of competition or regulation, and to build market. If somebody comes up with a use for a *lot* of launches and ships that they can prove to SpaceX needs a price lower than $50M per to be viable, they may get it if SpaceX gets to keep the ships. SpaceX has reasons to want lots of ships in play.

      I wonder what it would cost to build a second JWST, or a dozen. Seems like it ought to be quite a lot less than the first one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pricewise, launches go per kg, not per event…


        No, this is exactly backwards, and a common mistake. The cost is priced as a launch. If you can figure out how to use the mass and volume more efficiently, cool. But with the exception of a few of the constellation providers, that simply doesn’t happen.

        That’s why the average F9 payload–even with Starlinks biasing them to be quite heavy–is only about 8.3t/launch. SpaceX advertises almost 23t to LEO, and 67% of their flights go to LEO.

        It’s possible that Starship, with its large payload volume, will enable a more freight-like view of payloads, where you stop thinking in terms of “rideshare” and start thinking in terms of standard containerization. But we’re not even close to there yet. Until we are, payload integration is a big deal, and cost/mass will be too noisy a figure of merit to use.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am corrected.

        SpaceX will need to figure a way to generate demand. Maybe buy some time by reserving a fragment of room aboard each of the first few dozen or hundred Starlink and tanker runs for a 10t “Fat Cubesat”.


    1. In the short time, probably irrelevant. The goal is to manufacture the propellant on site just like it will be needed on Mars. Net zero pollution. In the long run it will be beneficial by taking heavy polluting industries out of earth.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Eventually, but given SpaceX’s desire to pump gas from methane wells they now have the rights to and use a methane powered generator to supply the energy needed for Starbase, that may be a while. I’m talking a decade or two. Long-term… I’m talking decades, I think you are right… they need to do it.
        Near-term though, I think the offshore launch platforms, where most Starships are supposed to be launched from, will be serviced by LNG carriers… it (or a dedicated LNG pipeline) is the only way I can imagine them having propellant on hand to have the kind of launch cadence they aspire to have.


    2. The US used 30Trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2020, or about 1.6e12 kg.
      A Starship launch is about 1e6 kg of methane. (Propellant mass is about 75% LOX)
      So a thousand launches a year would be 1/1600 (0.06%) of the 2020 US consumption.

      So no big deal in the larger scheme of things.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. All this is why solar power satellites might actually work. Musk won’t do it, but someone is going to notice they can build hardware at regular cost instead of legacy space cost, get it to GEO for $100/kg or so, collect 5X as much sunlight per square meter per day which overcomes the transmission losses, skip the expensive batteries, get as much power on cloudy winter days as sunny summer days, and build a ground collector that’s basically just a bunch of wire. Possibly also collect even more sunlight with some cheap mylar.
    The book *The Case for Space Solar Power* has detailed cost estimates. Plugging in Starship costs gives an estimate of 4 cents/kWh at scale, which is pretty good for clean baseload.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Solar projects are cheaper right now but they’re backed up by natural gas, which is why they get by with no more than four hours of battery. To run entirely on wind/solar we’d need enough oversupply to handle lower output in winter, and enough battery to handle a couple weeks of lower production due to clouds.

        The oversupply multiplies solar’s cost directly and the scale of storage required is enormous. This article probably makes some overly pessimistic assumptions but is still a good starting point:

        There may be solutions at that scale but I don’t think it’s clear that they’ll be cheaper than 4 cents/kWh.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s pretty clear to me that non exotic market mechanisms can correctly size a mix of batteries, solar, and wind in any given market. No need to go the planned economy route. Batteries in particular are wildly profitable and each new battery lowers overall power costs to the consumer.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. We rely on fossil backing for solar now because solar’s share of the load is still very, very small, and storage prices are plummeting even faster than solar. Each renewable-energy dollar is just overwhelmingly better-spent on a panel, right now, than on storage. By the time the solar share gets large enough to affect grid stability, storage alternatives will have shaken out, making storage an increasingly better use for that dollar.

        Iron-air batteries are looking extremely cheap. I cannot find anything to suggest their round-trip net efficiency, so I expect it is quite low: 50%? That doesn’t really matter too much if top-line cost for solar continues on down. Marketing materials have the iron batteries fronted by lithium for smoothing fluctuations.

        It is hard to imagine a development that would make orbital solar a better choice for terrestrial power than, even, nukes. At latitudes above 55 degrees, nukes might actually have some sort of future. But not too many people live there. Maybe supertankers will bring them ammonia to burn, synthesized in Algeria, Mauritania, and … Saudi Arabia?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. We have to jump to a replacement for “batteries” to store solar generated power. How about liquid nitrogen? Under the basement of every house would be storage. Start with piston-operated generators (like early locomotives) and go from there. I don’t know cooling technology but it can be done.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Liquified-air energy storage is being tested at utility scale in Chile. Air liquifaction has the advantage of extreme maturity. But the mechanical nature of both refrigeration and power extraction via turbine seem to enforce serious economies of scale, so I guess basement storage is unlikely. (I would welcome being wrong on that.) I was surprised to learn that, at the Chilean facility, they are also banking the heat they pump out of the air.

        At atmospheric pressure, nitrogen condenses out at 77K, after argon at 87K and oxygen at 91K. I assume the oxygen could be vented via a heat exchanger to cool incoming air with little loss. Curiously, argon freezes at 84K, well above the temperature where the nitrogen condenses, so I guess you would vent that, too.


    1. With electricity, there’s not just generation and storage to think about, but also transmission. If beaming power from orbit works better than expected, it can be beamed to anywhere you put the receiving system. Just as satellite communications avoid last-mile costs on the ground, satellite power might have a niche based on the lack of power lines.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you consider the marginal value of an additional Watt of received microwave power, data is about a billion times more valuable than electricity transmission. That should tell you everything you need to know.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The growth case for data vs. solar is indeed staggering. Starlink’s satellite manufacturing will presumably conform to Wright’s law/Moore’s law surges in efficiency and capacity. This year, for example, deployment was paused to switch to inter-satellite laser links that can bypass the internet and ground stations.

        As Casey pointed out in an earlier post, telecoms is one of the very few trillion-dollar industries out there. What could constrain Starlink from regularly doubling its network capacity? Comparing the cost of a building and maintaining mass-produced satellites to land and underwater cable networks, it’s a matter of when, not if, Starlink dominates. Being fastest won’t hurt either.

        That kind of bonanza will fund a lot of Starship and Mars endeavors.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Starlink will have a hard time competing for raw bandwidth, but will have a decisive advantage for lower-bandwidth latency-sensitive communications. The money available for that is very large, because it enables intercontinental trading arbitrage. There is lots of money in the pot for low latency delivery, but most of the money available is to buy exclusivity, i.e. not (also) providing the same latency to somebody else. You can dribble out the data, top payers get it first, second tier gets it a millisecond later, and so on, to get paid for both over and over.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. All true, but there is an important secondary effect on newly connected remote locations. Many people would love to escape the cities to a lower pressure lifestyle while still maintaining their techno-incomes. Rural NorCal, for instance is already seeing upticks in sales to fleeing urbanites. On a large scale, this will bring new money, new people, new attitudes and new opportunities to places that have been left behind for 60 years. The economic implications are considerable but the social ones are possibly more consequential. I have lived more than half my life in remote locations so I understand this on a very personal level.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. There might be a window of opportunity against SLS in the upcoming years. Its prime defender (Dick Shelby) is finally retiring in 2022, so if Starship can demonstrate these capabilities in 2022-23 then SLS might actually be politically vulnerable. They’ll still get a couple launches, and NASA will have to throw Marshall a bone afterwards, but the program would wind down after a couple launches – and be primed to be replaced either by SpaceX or a company with a Starship copycat.

    I guess we’ll just wait and see what the impact of Starship is outside of the governmental sector. SpaceX is already a dominant force in commercial launches (there’s a reason why the Arianespace coalition simply refers to them as “our competitor” when discussing risk to business), and the remaining launch market they could cut into is heavily governmental. That might limit its immediate impact.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great piece! Of all the disrupted industries you mentioned, I think the pre-microcomputer cohort is the most apt for comparison’s sake — Honeywell, Burroughs, DEC, IBM, Wang, etc.). To appreciate the possibilities represented by the jump from thousands of computers to millions was clearly impossible, even for IBM, who reluctantly fostered its early iterations. But the explosion of hardware and software came clean-sheet thinking that understood how to exploit the new landscape. Starship will no doubt engender a thousand new disrupters, each focused on previously unattainable niche cases. I suspect Starship’s first lunar circumnavigation will make things very difficult for Artemis. If SpaceX delivers anything to the surface, even something as silly as the Moon Mark RC rover project, it’s game over.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. What Max Planck said seems relevant here: “A great scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    Liked by 3 people

  12. While NASA has developed its culture over the last 50 years, it has done so under the largest force shaping it. That force is Congress. The biggest interest Congress has in SLS is the chart showing it has subcontractors *in*every*state*.
    That indicates to me that NASA *will*not*be*allowed* to adapt to Starship. The men holding the money that is NASA’s lifeblood live and breath for power. They are granted that power by employed voters who don’t want to rock the boat. A NASA adapting to Starship will bleed power away from them and out to the market networks developing from low-cost spaceflight.
    The OldSpace corps must adapt from the position we space activists were talking about in 1986 among each other. “Ultimately, Congress is *the* Customer.” Some can adapt, if they scamper. Their vision is too often that “Our Company has been here for 100 years! *We* let the small fry “scamper”.”
    Only with humility toward the market, and no small degree of anxiety, will any company survive. The problem with these vassal corporations, is that their subordination, and their anxieties, are focused inside the Beltway. They will have to change at their basic functional level. When Congress jerks on their financial reins, their anxieties will go sky high, and their stock values will drop like a rock. To change, they will have to endure both.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It seems inevitable that Old Space will survive the coming transition only in memoriam. While, in principle there are some paths forward for them, just as in auto manufacturing, the primary and probably insurmountable barrier is cultural. The majority of those old dogs will follow the path of Kodak and many others before they learn the new tricks necessary. Dang whippersnapers gonna givm’ a dang heart attack, walking all over the dang lawn.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Quote: “The biggest interest Congress has in SLS is the chart showing it has subcontractors *in*every*state*. That indicates to me that NASA *will*not*be*allowed* to adapt to Starship.”
      Exactly this is the mistake in logic that needs to change in everyones mind: Starship is not the enemy. The current goals of all the NASA centers are.
      If congress can somehow be convinced that, instead of having all these people work towards SLS, they could be working towards a huge lunar base, or a continuous Mars presence, and *still* have all the people in every state gainfully employed, then organizationally everything would be as before (which they want, from a politicians viewpoint), but the results will be exponentially better.
      So, all of you: write to your congressmen and have them read Casey’s article!


      1. Exactly. Re-operationalizing NASA centers and contractors around a technically defensible mission is just what it needs. Noone is going to get fired, but they’re all going to be making a lot more stuff than before.


  13. Could you comment on the enabling technologies for Starship that make it so much more capable than Apollo with its Saturn V? I assume advanced digital computing is key; are there others? My apologies if you’ve already covered this in a previous blog post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The big deal is re-use. You can spend more on engines because they will make many flights. They can be minutely controlled locally, millisecond by millisecond, according to instantaneous measurement of conditions. They are more efficient, which cuts mass requirements, recursively. Reliable, lightweight, multiply redundant, distributed control improves survivability.

      Apollo had to put the whole mission on one stack, and controlled by a central computer with cycle time in microseconds. A physically simpler launch configuration relaxes requirements, at the cost of sometimes more complicated mission profiles, such as on-orbit refueling.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually I think volume manufacturing is a bigger differentiator than reuse. Maybe 50 F1 engines were built over the lifespan of Saturn. SpaceX have already built more Raptors than that and are targeting one per day. Without that scale, you don’t get the engine cost down below $1m each (I understand they’re targeting $250k each)

        We’re going to find out which is more important. Some of the smallsat launchers are targeting being able to build a lot of rockets quickly while others are working on reuse.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are two questions being addressed in this sub-thread. The first was how SpaceX is able to field a better-performing rocket than Apollo achieved. It’s a good question, because the same laws of physics governing them haven’t changed. The other question is how SpaceX can field rockets of similar capacity so much more cheaply. The second question is an economic one, so production volume, simple construction, Wright’s Law, maturity of technology underpinnings–metallurgy, in-silico modeling and rapid turnaround prototyping–contribute multiplicatively.

        The physical question leads us to higher combustion chamber temperature and pressure dependent on better materials and integrated physical design of the combustion chamber and throat, more complete combustion resulting in less fuel and oxidizer needed, and so less needed to accelerate those. Liquid methane at 111K is harder to handle than kerosene at room temperature, but has better flight qualities: 27% more energy per unit mass, and more H2O-18 and less CO2-44 in the exhaust, improving specific impulse. Hull construction with steel turns out to be better than aluminum, using a better steel alloy than we knew of 50 years ago. Continuous fine-tuning of all operating parameters using pervasive microelectronics enables pushing performance right up to design limits. (Saturn’s one on-board computer could multiply-add only ~3000 23-bit numbers per second.) The fuel and oxidizer pump/turbines get better blade materials and accurate flow modeling, and (“full flow”) all the excess fuel/oxidizer in their exhaust ends up contributing to thrust.

        So, shaving a few percent here, a few percent there, savings accumulate enough to leave fuel for a soft landing.

        Liked by 3 people

  14. Not widely known is that the current heat shield tile solution is basically the same as on the shuttle, requiring a similar degree of personal attention to each tile before lofting again. The tiles are bigger, but the ship is bigger, too. There are fewer different tile shapes: on STS, every single tile was unique. But that saves cost, not time.

    As I understand it, each tile has to have some goo squirted into it before it is ready to be re-used, along with other attention. You won’t get 1/2-hour, or half-month launch turnaround that way.

    I don’t know of any plans for designs on later ships that don’t require such detailed personal attention. I found a site that said nobody has any aerogel sturdy enough to withstand supersonic wind, so that’s not a possibility. It might just be that they are hoping somebody will come up with something before they actually need to do more than a few flights a year.

    I would welcome being corrected on this point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Given that the target goal for Starship, rapid affordable reuse, is the same as the target goal we once had for Shuttle I have no problem with the first Starship prototypes to attempt reentry using already demonstrated technology. After all one has to start somewhere and starting with something that always worked in practice when it wasn’t damaged by failing foam is a minimally viable starting point. Starship isn’t a side-mount concept so what could have been good enough for a better designed Shuttle should still be good enough for early iteration Starships.

      That said where does the goo-squirting requirement for Starship tiles come from? I am an avid reader of the NSF forums and I don’t ever recall seeing a single SpaceX employee squirting goo. Based on this absence of evidence I hope you’ll forgive me for wondering if you might be one of the future-deniers Casey is trying to warn us about in this particular blog post.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. In the early iterations, each tile had a stud on the back going through a hole in the hull. No idea if that’s still how they’re affixed, but Musk did say that they have to be loose enough to allow for heat expansion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There are three studs per tile, but the tile has holes; the studs are welded to the hull. Removing the tile means breaking it. There’s no fixing tiles; you replace it with a fresh one.

        They’re still learning how best to emplace the tiles. They seem to be one to two order of magnitude faster than Shuttle right now.

        Liked by 2 people

  15. I met someone last weekend who had worked at NASA, and he told me that it was a dead organization. His words. So I think that not only will they not capitalize on the opportunity, they won’t even manage to avoid the tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Lags are entirely predictable. Other launch providers still haven’t woken up to the reason why SpaceX has been kicking their butts for several years with Falcon 9. Entirely reasonable to expect an even longer lag as people get their heads around Starship. Too many vested interests, too much engineering “inertia”, not enough clear thinking. The old saw about science advancing funeral by funeral.

    Great article, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. >That is, Starship is a powerful logistical system that puts launch below the API.
    What does API or “below the API” mean here? Some jargon used in logistics/business? I get the sense you mean the launch part of the operation becomes of low importance/automated.


  18. Interesting thinking with which I can only concur.

    But why would a moon-adapted tractor need space paint at all?

    For protection? Visibility? Adverts? Branding?


  19. “…churning out world-building machines by the truckload…”

    Could you elaborate on more on this? With more examples? Super stoked!

    Also, what do you mean by “automated construction management machinery”?

    Liked by 1 person

  20. We need the rocketry/human spaceflight equivalent of General Billy Mitchel – court marshaled at the time for saying what needed to be said, immortalized and promoted decades later for having the vision and conviction to say it.
    It is remarkable to me how institutionalized and resistant to change many people at NASA, in government and within the aerospace industry must be. I’m an IT auditor for the government – I see this wherever I go, whatever agency we audit. The institution of government and rocketry seem to have a lot in common…. and when they are combined, it appears to bring innovation and titanic shifts in operation and program management to a crawl.
    I feel like this is the rocketry equivalent of the adoption of air power as the predominant weapon for naval warfare and strategic combat. We’re in the interwar years – Falcon 9 has shooken things up the way the bi-plane did during World War I, but its capabilities and the future it brings are not fully appreciated.
    What we need is a Billy Mitchel of rocketry and human spaceflight – someone with power and influence whose willing to tell the hard truths, even if it means the end of their career. I hope that person steps up, whoever they are.


    1. H. H. Munro, as Saki, wrote a novel, “When William Came”, that opened with the Kaiser’s air superiority having obliterated the British Navy. It was published in November 1913. WWI began in July 1914. By the time Mitchell reached combat in 1917, Munro had been killed in a trench by sniper fire.

      NASA still has plenty to offer if they can get entirely out of the business of making rockets.


  21. Something to be remembered is that NASA is not just in the business of sending rockets to the moon, it also provides huge amounts of information and monitoring about the earth. Not all elements of nasa’s remit will be impacted by Starship and as an organisation it must remain.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. A year or so ago, I had an email conversation with Carolyn Porco where she became unhinged and ended, in a classy fashion, with the venerable old science lady instructing me to go eff myself. We had actually corresponded for over a decade prior and everything was perfectly civil up until that fateful day.
    What made her unhinged? I asked her what she though of Starship and Elon’s Starkicker concept where a stripper-down starship-derived upper stage could be used, with refueling, to send 300 tons to the outer planets.
    Apparently, she doesn’t care for the outer planets being opened up to us mere plebeians by Elon and is quite alarmed at the prospect.
    She wants to be an outer but her mindset is that of an inner. Some Arthur C. Clarke comment about old scientists and the rate of progress comes to mind here.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Great article. Very informative. Hope relevant industry see this and build stuffs for starship to put in space. Cheap transport will open up a lot of service areas. Initially it might be not that cheap but if regular flights ( 10-12/ yr initially to 20-30/yr around beginning of 2030s ) happens eventually it will be great for all.


  24. My first thought when I saw that ludicrous Cooke preso was that you could take that lander, increase its payload by 5x, and stuff it into the lunar Starship payload bay for deployment–and retrieval–in NRHO.

    There’s a lot of hysteresis built into the state of the art for payload design. Implicitly, there are three key metrics:

    1) functionality / mass (higher ratio –> higher cost, higher complexity)
    2) functionality / volume (higher ratio –> higher cost, higher complexity)
    3) design lifetime (longer life –> higher cost)

    With high specific launch costs it makes sense to target high values of all of these metrics, which is what the industry has done for sixty years.

    But you don’t just wave your hands and overnight make designers dump the tools they’ve used for their entire careers. When you start designing for lower functionality/mass and shorter lifetimes, you’re effectively starting from scratch. You need new system engineering. New suppliers. New qualification suites. New system test regimes. New payload operations. And last but hardly least, a completely new design methodology, which implies a completely new organizational culture.

    That’s a powerful incentive not to reexamine your design methodology. The payload people are like an animal that’s so used to being in a cage that when you open the door, it just sits there, frightened of the outside world. A lot of these guys simply aren’t going to be able to operate in the new constraint space.

    This effect will go away, but it’ll take a while. In some cases, it’ll require some people retiring, and their replacements making a lot of mistakes before things settle down.

    The other thing to remember is that there is some irreducible minimum required to make stuff work in space. I don’t think there’s a prayer that an off-the-shelf piece of Caterpillar mining equipment would survive more than a couple of days before its electronics were fried in the radiation, its bearings seized with the lunar dust, and its crew made so many mistakes using terrestrial controls with spacesuits that they gave it up as a bad job.

    This doesn’t mean that the volumes of traffic you’re describing won’t happen. What it does mean is that the design vocabulary has to change before the revolution comes.

    As Starlink is demonstrating, the low-hanging fruit is to shorten design life. But when faced with redesigning a rover drive train that’s 3x as heavy and 2x as volume-intensive, vs. just adapting the one that you’ve used for the last five missions, you need to do a non-trivial amount of analysis to figure out which one gets you to launch sooner, and even which one costs more in terms of R&D.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many good points.

      Caterpillar stuff needs thorough admittance testing in large scale test chambers that don’t yet exist, for sure.

      Also, Starlink may have been designed with lower lifetime requirements but their learning rate is high enough that I strongly suspect they’ll be both cheaper and longer lasting in the near future, if they aren’t already. The Toyota approach, as it were.


      1. Starlinks can’t be much longer-lasting unless they’re redesigned with more propellant, because their altitude is so low that orbital decay happens quickly. They only stay up as long as they do because they’re frequently boosted back to their target altitude. I doubt they want to trade away power and transceivers for more krypton.


      2. Starlink birds appear to be limited by size at the moment: 270kg x 60 = 8 tons per launch. When Starships have room to loft, say, 500 at twice the mass (taking 34 launches to complete the constellation), they will have scope for lots more features. Probably there will be four or even more lasers, with two or more of them aimable to point at birds in other orbits. Probably there will be petabytes of on-board storage for content caching, to save on uplink bandwidth. They could add earth-pointing telescopes to precisely identify CH4 seeps and leaks.

        Maybe they will have radio telescopes that, coupled with all the others, may serve as a planet-sized phased array, to help mollify astronomers. Integrating and calibrating that would be an interesting computational problem, I expect dependent on pulsars.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. GPS gives good enough location information for synthetic aperture radio astronomy, I think.

        Starlink feature set is laser focused on achieving primary business goal.


    2. @ncmncm:

      “Starlink birds appear to be limited by size at the moment: 270kg x 60 = 8 tons per launch.”

      Each launch to 53º is 15.6t, which comes out to 260kg/bird.

      “When Starships have room to loft, say, 500 at twice the mass (taking 34 launches to complete the constellation), they will have scope for lots more features.”

      First, 500 @ 520kg would be 260t, which is way over what Starship can haul to orbit, even once the platform is optimized.

      Second, if you’re launching out of Boca Chica, there’s likely no direct insertion to 53º, because early in the flight it will involve overflying heavily populated areas of either the US Southeast or the Mexican Gulf Coast. Instead, I think it’s likely that they’ll launch down the Yucatan Channel, then dogleg farther south when the ground track for any debris can stay out to sea.

      When I tried to calculate the extra delta-v needed for that dogleg, I got somewhere in the neighborhood of an extra 1300m/s. That limits the payload to about 64t per launch, which would be about 250 of the current Starlinks per launch.

      When they get a launch site in Florida, they’ll be able to get all the way to 100t-150t. But that’s going to take a while.

      The current Starlink stack is 4.6m wide and 6.7m high. Starship has an 8m-wide payload envelope, and it’s at least 4.6m wide for about the first 15m of the payload bay. You can’t quite fit two stacks in there, but you could extend the existing mounting to handle about 134 satellites (34.8t) per launch. I expect that that’s how they’ll start using Starship. But I do agree that they’ll re-design the dispenser system–and possibly the satellites themselves–pretty quickly.

      “Probably there will be four or even more lasers, with two or more of them aimable to point at birds in other orbits. Probably there will be petabytes of on-board storage for content caching, to save on uplink bandwidth. They could add earth-pointing telescopes to precisely identify CH4 seeps and leaks.”

      I agree with Casey: less is more. Starlink is severely capacity limited right now. If they add mass, it’s to be able to handle more user terminals simultaneously. But that may be severely limited by their FCC license. In general, more satellites, with smaller spot sizes, is going to be better than heavier satellites.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wikipedia said 270kg, but says 260kg. They launched the first, and last, 51 of “block 1.5” birds from Vandenberg on a polar orbit.

        > 500 @ 520kg would be 260t

        (We get only 1000kg in a ton. Units analysis FTW!)

        They should be able to get on a couple more lasers, with galvanomic steering mirrors, without adding more than another couple of kg, and quite a lot of static storage for just a couple more. It is actually hard to find uses for another 260kg. My point was just that the Starship launches will also be limited more by volume than mass, and that any mass they don’t put on that they could is, in a real way, wasted.

        If Starlink is so capacity-limited, then last-330-mile cache/proxying, mainly as a means to reduce traffic load, could be an important source of income, besides. I bet, too, that they will come up with a broadcast scheme to minimize duplicate traffic load for World Cup games.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “> 500 @ 520kg would be 260t
        (We get only 1000kg in a ton. Units analysis FTW!)”

        500 * 520kg = 260,000kg = 260t. Metric tonnes, obviously.

        If you assume that the birds are still 260kg (which wasn’t your premise–you said they’d double in size), then yes, 130t is potentially possible.

        “They should be able to get on a couple more lasers, with galvanomic steering mirrors, without adding more than another couple of kg…”

        More lasers don’t help. The limiting factor is RF uplink/downlink bandwidth. Inter-satellite links are great for avoiding putting ground gateways in awkward spots and for applications that really need 20ms intercontinental latency, but that’s a tiny amount of traffic.

        The best way to increase bandwidth efficiency is to decrease spot size, although there are still interference limits. But you can’t decrease spot size to anywhere close to the limits unless you’ve got enough satellites to cover the increased number of spots (smaller spots = more of them are needed).

        “…and quite a lot of static storage for just a couple more. It is actually hard to find uses for another 260kg. My point was just that the Starship launches will also be limited more by volume than mass, and that any mass they don’t put on that they could is, in a real way, wasted.

        If Starlink is so capacity-limited, then last-330-mile cache/proxying, mainly as a means to reduce traffic load, could be an important source of income, besides. I bet, too, that they will come up with a broadcast scheme to minimize duplicate traffic load for World Cup games.”

        This typically isn’t how content distribution networks work. Stuff doesn’t get cached in the last-hop routers; it gets cached where it can be accessed with low latency and cost. In terrestrial networks, that’s not usually at the head end, but instead at the provider edge, which is often in an IXP.

        Think about what happens if you blast several terabytes of American YouTube content to cache at every Starlink: The satellite is over the target audience for about 20 minutes out of the 90 minute orbit. Then you have to dump it and load terabytes of Russian or Hindi YouTube instead.

        The proper place to keep this stuff is in the ground gateways.

        BTW, RTP (the internet protocol for real-time video) already supports multicast. That’s how you do live streaming. And that can be very efficiently distributed to satellites, because routers know exactly how to forward a single copy of IP multicast packets to all of the downstream consumers of the flow.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. > Metric tonnes, obviously.

        Dimensional analysis would have prevented my mistake.

        > More lasers don’t help. The limiting factor is RF uplink/downlink bandwidth.

        Bouncing traffic to other birds helps distribute trunk traffic to less-loaded spots.
        Open ocean is just the special case where there is exactly zero direct trunk bandwidth available; other overloaded spots have, instead, zero unused trunk bandwidth.

        > This typically isn’t how content distribution networks work. Stuff doesn’t get cached in the last-hop routers; it gets cached where it can be accessed with low latency and cost. In terrestrial networks, that’s not usually at the head end, but instead at the provider edge, which is often in an IXP.

        Satellite distribution is very atypical. Caching on the ground means the same bytes have to go up and then down, over and again for each subscriber interested. Caching in orbit means they just go down. Furthermore, the bird can literally broadcast them once instead of sending the same packet over and over to different rooftop stations, milliseconds apart–provided the on-air protocol allows for it. Starlink has no reason not to define their own protocol to optimize their network performance.

        > RTP (the internet protocol for real-time video) already supports multicast. That’s how you do live streaming. And that can be very efficiently distributed to satellites, because routers know exactly how to forward a single copy of IP multicast packets to all of the downstream consumers of the flow.

        Ordinary multicast doesn’t help *at all* when a satellite is talking to hundreds of rooftop transceivers; each is a separate point-to-point link. What you need to reduce downlink traffic is for one packet to be transmitted, and received simultaneously by all the interested transceivers, and cached in them until it’s asked for. If the rooftop transceivers can cache a few GB, you can broadcast frames to them you know they probably would otherwise ask for soon, because video streams have predictable traffic patterns. Everybody watching the same movie will want mostly the same packets in the same order, even if they are at different points in the stream. People watching the World Cup will, additionally, all stay as close to the same point as they can get.

        But it will involve cooperation with streaming providers, who will be motivated to optimize both traffic from their ground nodes, and their customers’ experience.


      4. Despite some significant differences in scope and scale, I’ve learned a few lessons in design from having ridden over 200k miles unsupported long distance solo bicycle touring that are applicable to Starship. Similar to a Starship full of people on its long way to Mars, or elsewhere, maximum comfort, utility, and survivability on cycling journeys like mine are greatly enhanced when every ounce of mass you crank up the mountain on a strictly limited energy budget must be made to perform as many different useful functions in the least amount of volume with the lowest maintenance possible.

        So, ideally, walls and floors on long duration Starships should be more than passive partitions and load bearing elements, if and only if the additional functionality can be accomplished without undue compromise to the primary function or undue cost or complexity during construction and operation. So, the system I propose is meant to provide the following Swiss Army Knife range of services beyond structure and privacy;

        1. Thermal Management via internal water channels in modular extruded translucent polyethylene panels. 2. LEDs embedded during extrusion adjacent to the water tubing provide diffuse lighting to both the room spaces and to drive photosynthesis of blue-green algae growing in the circulating water system. The algae consume CO2, exhale oxygen and provide foodstuff. They also color the glowing walls a pleasant green. 3. The water and plastic together provide useful high energy neutron spallation shielding which might be enhanced by including a helium gas (light weight, inert and good neutron xc) filled foam within the plastic extrusions. 4. Management of water flow and algae accumulation on the walls could be managed by various simple means I could describe if pressed. 5. Using standardized modular sub units with all connectors, manifolds, sensor, power, water supply and control leads embedded pre-installation, final assembly in place could be significantly streamlined versus bespoke assembly of each of the embedded systems separately.

        Obviously, many details are glossed over here for brevity’s sake, and reams of calculations would be required to define thicknesses, mechanical loading, channel diameter, flow rates, cost/benefit etc. ad quasi infinitum. My purpose here is to run the general concept up the flagpole and see if any flying fish bite the bait. A mixed metaphor indeed, but you must admit, any fish would have to fly to bite a flag so ….

        Any takers?

        On Wed, Nov 3, 2021, 1:21 AM Casey Handmer’s blog wrote:

        > ncmncm commented: “> Metric tonnes, obviously. Dimensional analysis would > have prevented my mistake. > More lasers don’t help. The limiting factor is > RF uplink/downlink bandwidth. Bouncing traffic to other birds helps > distribute trunk traffic to less-loaded s” >


      5. “Bouncing traffic to other birds helps distribute trunk traffic to less-loaded spots.”

        Even in terrestrial networks, core bandwidth is hardly ever the problem. It’s always the Last Mile (or last 550km, in this case).

        The number of subscribers SpaceX can sign up is always going to be dependent on that last mile traffic. So, if given a choice between building an even marginally heavier bird that has more inter-satellite links and launching an extra bird that can increase the subscriber density, it’s always going to be better to do the latter. Same thing with extra storage.

        “Satellite distribution is very atypical. Caching on the ground means the same bytes have to go up and then down, over and again for each subscriber interested. Caching in orbit means they just go down.”

        No. Caching in orbit means that you have to uplink a bunch of content that may or may not be used. And it’s much less likely to be used in Starlink, because the time that a particular user terminal is bound to a particular satellite is measured in single-digit minutes, if that.

        Again: This isn’t how CDNs work. CDNs do cache, but mostly they pre-position stuff, based on proprietary predictive algorithms, which may be partially under their customers’ (the content providers’) control. Unless those algorithms are re-written specifically for Starlink, they won’t work on content with a time to live of only minutes.

        And I strongly doubt that SpaceX is going to let third parties run code on the bird. The chance of stuff breaking out of a sandbox is way too high, and the consequences are way too catastrophic. They’re going to know the provenance of every single byte in the executable image.

        That said, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see Starlink sprout some sort of very simple HTTP proxy that can hang on to the last few URL GETs, managed LRU. But that’s a far cry from caching terabytes of content, as CDN providers do today.

        As for the traffic bouncing up and down: That’s true, but it’s also a key part of the architecture. All user terminals are at least two hops away from the terrestrial network. All traffic engineering has to adhere to that constraint. So it’s no worse delivering content from the gateway than it is short-circuiting the process by pre-positioning the content on the bird. And it’s vastly more complex: think of what has to happen when the bird hands user terminal off to the next bird.

        “Furthermore, the bird can literally broadcast them once instead of sending the same packet over and over to different rooftop stations, milliseconds apart–provided the on-air protocol allows for it. Starlink has no reason not to define their own protocol to optimize their network performance.”

        Unless traffic is live (i.e., part of a realtime conversation or some event where the audience demands to see it within seconds of when the source content is generated, like a sporting event), you can’t broadcast anything. And, except for VoIP and VVoIP, which has very low fan-out, that’s a minuscule proportion of total content.

        Beyond that, it’s not completely clear that you can broadcast. Satellite traffic looks a lot more like LTE or 5G traffic than a shared medium. Uplinks are slotted in the time, frequency, polarization, and sometimes even coding domains, because collision detection doesn’t work. Downlinks can be more broadly shared, but I’d guess that the beam steering for the downlink channels was substantially different than that of the uplinks.

        “Ordinary multicast doesn’t help *at all* when a satellite is talking to hundreds of rooftop transceivers; each is a separate point-to-point link. What you need to reduce downlink traffic is for one packet to be transmitted, and received simultaneously by all the interested transceivers, and cached in them until it’s asked for.”

        You’re confusing multicast transport with the broadcast capabilities of the MAC layer. Multicast guarantees that as few copies of the packet arrive at the router (in this case the satellite) as possible. After that, it’s up to the forwarder to understand if there’s a MAC living underneath that can handle broadcast or single-slot multicast. As I said above, it’s not at all clear how the satellite MAC will deal with this.

        As for the ground station being “interested” in the packet: there are three cases:

        1) It’s subscribing to a multicast flow (not stream), in which case it wants it ASAP.

        2) There’s a modestly high probability that the user associated with the terminal will want to fetch the same content as somebody else in the same spot beam, in the same 10 minute period, in which case an HTTP proxy with a shallow cache on the satellite is good enough.

        3) The user has subscribed for the content, not the multicast flow, in which case there’s some application that can fetch the content in background and cache it. This is essentially a DVR, but it can be implemented as a terminal-side proxy, similar to #2. Whether it makes sense to implement this functionality using a lower grade of QoS or not is a good question.

        “If the rooftop transceivers can cache a few GB, you can broadcast frames to them you know they probably would otherwise ask for soon, because video streams have predictable traffic patterns. Everybody watching the same movie will want mostly the same packets in the same order, even if they are at different points in the stream. People watching the World Cup will, additionally, all stay as close to the same point as they can get.

        But it will involve cooperation with streaming providers, who will be motivated to optimize both traffic from their ground nodes, and their customers’ experience.”

        This is all stuff that’s done at application level. You never cache raw packet streams, if for no other reason than it’s the Mother of All Security Vulnerabilities; you cache the responses to HTTP GETs for specific resources, and whether those resources get delivered via TCP unicast, RTP unicast, RTP multicast, or telepathy is outside the control of the application.

        And yes, it does involve the cooperation of not only the streaming providers, but also the streaming providers’ CDN providers. And neither of them is getting a single byte of code into the satellite image. Starlink will have the DoD as a major customer. They’ll take a very dim view of sharing a physical asset with Akamai or TikTok applications.


      6. You are patiently explaining why Starlink must pessimize their network in order to more closely resemble earthbound networks. But Starlink will not consider their choices constrained by conventions of LTE networks and existing CDNs. Unlike those, they control both the ends of the connection. Handing off terminals from one satellite to the next is central to Starlink’s architecture; they have certainly solved it already.

        Once enough birds are up, the bottleneck will become spectrum, not coverage area, and lofting more will not help. Reducing spectrum waste will become essential to maintaining service quality. If lofting more-massive satellites can help any, we will see more-massive satellites, because adding mass does nothing to reduce the number than can be launched, particularly after SuperHeavy is involved. It would not be surprising if Starlink gets Starship hulls customized for their use, maybe with smaller tankage to leave more cargo room, and lacking finicky heat shields and landing engines.

        Caching in orbit means the most heavily demanded content goes up a final time and stays up until its value is exceeded by something else. Broadcasting is absolutely viable; the key is caching readahead in the terminal, although sporting events wouldn’t depend much on that. Laser-link bandwidth capacity is much more abundant than up/downlink spectrum, so forwarding traffic cached on one bird to neighbors is much cheaper than getting the same traffic from the ground.

        Will the complicated work happen above level 3? Obviously. Will those application-level services fail to take advantage of unique capabilities of level 2? Why should they? And, no, Akamai and Tiktok will not get to run code on the satellites, but if they fail to step up to orchestrating delivery of raw data known to be cached on satellites and deliverable on demand, their customers (who are not the terminal owners) will have good reasons to complain.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. “Handing off terminals from one satellite to the next is central to Starlink’s architecture; they have certainly solved it already.”

        Yup, but they didn’t modify any laws of physics while handing it off. It doesn’t change the fact that you’d have to load the cache of every single satellite to make it worthwhile.

        “Once enough birds are up, the bottleneck will become spectrum, not coverage area, and lofting more will not help.”

        I’m taking issue with the value of “enough”. The more birds you have, the smaller you can make the spots, and the closer the birds servicing the spots will be to zenith. The dispersion angle of the transmitters is what it is, and when you get enough power slopping from one bird to another, you get interference. But with satellites at zenith, actual dispersion distance on the ground is less, because the line-of-sight is shorter. That means that you can have spots that are closer to each other using the same frequency bands without interference. And that makes spectral efficiency much, much better.

        If you read the FCC apps, SpaceX eventually plans to limit birds to a 25º elevation angle, but they requested (and were granted) a modification for a 10º elevation angle during rollout, to ensure adequate coverage. But the problem with that is that the coverage area becomes more and more elongated as the angle drops, causing more and more interference. Getting the elevation angle as close to 90º as possible limits the interference.

        “Caching in orbit means the most heavily demanded content goes up a final time and stays up until its value is exceeded by something else.”

        If caches were globally relevant, that might make sense. But they’re not; India, China, Africa, and the Middle East don’t care about American content. You’d have such terrible hit rates that there’s no way that it’s worth loading the same content, over and over and over, into every single satellite that eventually winds up servicing a particular ground spot. (Hint: that’s all of them.)


      8. You keep talking about reloading caches on every orbit, but of course no one would do such a foolish thing. Instead, space will be rented according to what is most valuable to whoever rents the space, and it will be copied onto a sufficient selection of satellites that it is sufficiently available when needed, for as long as they are willing to pay. Some contents will be more widely useful than others, or more valuable in the limited territory where it is useful, and that will be the content that is cached. Files relevant mainly to US customers are useful a substantial part of the time, and may be ignored elsewhere. Other files relevant mainly to Indians will be broadcast when over India, to Brazilians over Brazil, to Australians over Australia, to Chinese over China. Disney movies are relevant worldwide. At any time when some bit is not called for, it is easily ignored.

        There is hardly a practical upper limit on how much storage you could usefully put on board a satellite. The more storage there is, the more may be found to put in it. There would be no value in leaving laser links idle if data could be usefully sent on them, so that not every cached file must be copied onto every satellite.

        It is generally a mistake to assume that people operating expensive equipment would immediately choose the silliest way to operate it that you can imagine. Given a measure of storage on each satellite, and 100Gbps laser links between them, they will, instead, soon discover the most valuable way to apply them.


  25. Someone should make a detailed animation of the SLS/Orion mission from launches and rendezvous to landing on the moon. Then after the astronauts plant their feet on the moon and congratulate themselves, they walk over to the fully built out SpaceX base.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let me throw out a new understanding of Starship that I have recently arrived at for comment and discussion. I’m sure that others have appreciated this previously since the conclusion is quite obvious, but I have not run across discussion of it previously. Starship decks and living spaces can be laid out more like an ocean liner than a tower block.

      This lends itself to far more expansive view planes inside and large social spaces, more efficient passenger boarding in a horizontal orientation and many other advantages whether in transit or settled on their bellies as permanent facilities on the moon or Mars.

      On Fri, Oct 29, 2021, 1:54 PM Casey Handmer’s blog wrote:

      > Jeff Lucia commented: “Someone should make a detailed animation of the > SLS/Orion mission from launches and rendezvous to landing on the moon. Then > after the astronauts plant their feet on the moon and congratulate > themselves, they walk over to the fully built out SpaceX base.” >


      1. If laid out like an ocean liner, the landing could be quite tough on the passengers?

        Or are you thinking that this is for an early Starship with no/few crew that settles into the regolith tail first, then is tipped over by a later arrival? Or even lands on its side with non-raptor engines?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Seats can easily be designed to pivot 90° as the ship is tilted from horizontal to vertical and stacked atop the booster, leaving the passenger lying flat on their backs. Interior decking braces the crew area against horizontal loads and gaseous N2 pressurizes the propellant tanks until final loading atop the booster.

        Those minor details aside, the design potential of the ocean liner layout offers much more flexibility and spaciousness for both utilitarian and esthetic values.


  26. I agree that NASA should return to its roots — do advanced planetary probes like JPL, advanced propulsion research, space physics etc, similar to tthe way the old predecessor NACA did a bunch of wind tunnel research characterizing air foil designs, studying the atmosphere properties at various altitudes and making that research applicable to the commercial and military sectors. NACA supported growth of the airplane industry, it did not try to run an airline or build a production plane.


  27. I was at DEC in the 70s in the PDP-10/20 Large Computer Engineering Group. 36 bits! For a night school product I did a Delphi Survey asking about the potential impact of new microprocessors like the 4004. The reaction from other engineers and engineering management was so hostile and derisive that I really couldn’t iterate the survey. DEC which I loved as a nice place to work was Dead Man Walking.
    I left and moved into computer communications, later networking etc. Great career move. Exciting, which was my goal.


    1. While the PDP-10 didn’t survive that era, DEC as a whole made some of the more successful microprocessors (the VAX and then the Alpha). Their eventual demise as a company and ignominious sale to Compaq wasn’t due to their inability to recognise the potential of the 4004.


      1. My 1st was a PDP11 at US Army Signal School, Ft. Gordon, Ga. encrypting secure nuclear C&C. After service and college where we had an IBM 365 and then I ended up in Civil Engineering where I first used an IBM electromechanical machine with a crank handle and paper tape output. Next came a DEC VAX with keyboard screen and mouse then on to PC’s. That period included the obsolescence of hand drafting. which sucked some of the soul out of technical drawing


    2. DEC still lives on in HP, VMS Software, and Oracle. We are still supporting customers that haven’t migrated away. Systems run for years and a very secure.


  28. The space industry has needed a disruptive innovator for a generation. Apollo -> SLS ended iterative development across the entire US aerospace industry. Very refreshing to see that it’s back; I wish I had gotten my aerospace engineering degree now, instead of in the early 90’s.

    And Dear NASA: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.


  29. “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.”
    It needs more than that. It needs heating and cooling to survive in day and night. And, possibly harder, it needs to cope with lunar dust. If you tried to design a substance to screw up moving parts and joints, lunar dust would be one of the end designs. It’s got small bits of glass, chunks of metal (including titanium), bits of stone. All smaller than fine flour. It sticks to surfaces very, very well via electrostatic attraction.
    I did some work on a lunar base team back in the 1990s under the Space Exploration Initiative program. I still have reference documents from that program, including the lunar dust book. Dust was also a big concern to the surface exploration suit team, and the life support team.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seals are going to need a lot of original research.

      Hydraulic rams will need to have have an accordion-style boot over the normally exposed rod all the way out to the clevis. We need a material to make the boot out of that can flex at -200C to +200C (some of each) without cracking, and tolerate UV exposure. It probably has 5 or more layers–silicone?–with a kevlar core and conductive coating.

      Seals on rotary bearings are a harder problem. How do we keep out super-erosive dust? Maybe we keep ion guns all over everything to charge up any dust thrown up, and carry a charge to repel it? Maybe a higher-voltage repeller ring right at the seal edge, with the edge recessed so dust would have to go a long way past the repeller to get into the bearing? Maybe an oppositely charged trap on the way there?

      We probably will need to try a lot of things before something that works reliably settles out.


  30. Another good example is Air Force’s strange decision to not picking Starship for development fund in NSSL, while selecting other (new & also unproven) launch vehicle. The reason? “We’re afraid it’s the same as Shuttle!”

    They believe (in 2018, when it’s awarded) that New Glenn & Vulcan will start in 2021, while Starship doesn’t go until 2026 (!). Oh the irony

    Ofc they’re super conservative & Starship changes the design rapidly, but still


  31. Great post and informative discussion, thanks. Here’s another question: how exactly will lunar and martian bases turn profit? I’d expect a lot of tourists willing to fly to the Moon if it will only cost $1-2k/kg, but few people would want to spend years traveling to Mars and back.


      1. Lots of people think it would be really cool. That’s really all. The trick will be keeping them thinking it’s really cool for long enough to do what can lead to other things that enough people will also find really cool.

        That was where Apollo failed. They went to the moon. Then they went again. And again. The Lunar Rover was pretty cool. But there was no prospect of anything else to look forward to.

        With enough cargo capacity, deliver equipment of all kinds. Build an infrared telescope and a radio telescope miles across inside a crater at the lunar south pole. Explore lava tubes for miles underground, undisturbed (except by occasional moonquakes) for hundreds of millions of years. Drill ice cores at the poles going back millions of years, to find out what happened in the solar system, century by century, maybe over a complete orbit of the galaxy. Collect bits blasted off of the Earth by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, still just lying there to be found.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. SpaceX isn’t going to Mars to turn a profit. They will likely lose tens of billions, perhaps hundreds of billions or even trillions over the next 50 years if they actually see Elon’s vision for Mars come true. There’s just no profit potential besides space tourism, government contracts and perhaps bringing back pieces of Mars to sell. Perhaps way, way, way in the distant future there will be a sustainable, profitable space tourism business, but that’s likely late this century imo.

        Don’t get me wrong, Elon and SpaceX will try to maximize their efforts by commercializing the endeavor… but it will still come at a huge loss, funded by the profit generated via Starlink and the sale of Elon’s shares of Tesla and, one day, even SpaceX. Elon will of course need to balance all of this out… his investors will want SpaceX to still turn a profit, hence Elon likely maintaining control over 30+% of Starlink for quite a while… and the billions of profit available to him as a result.

        Then there’s government. Lots of money involved there. I’m sure SpaceX will do whatever they can to offset their costs via government contracts.

        In the end its all about Elon’s dream of establishing life on a second planet – making humanity interplanetary and ‘extending the light of consciousness’. In Elon’s mind there’s no telling how long it will take to establish a self-sufficient presence on Mars, and while we don’t need it now, its a good idea to get started. A self-sufficient colony on Mars would also make a great launching point for missions to the rest of the solar system and beyond – certainly better than Earth. It might also make a nice location for intercepting dangerous asteroids… though I’m not so sure about that one.

        Also… I think Elon is acutely aware of how important his company is to ensuring humanity actually maintains an interplanetary launch infrastructure. I’m no doom and gloom person, but I do think its possible nuclear war will happen in the next 50-150 years. It’s almost inevitable… sadly. When it does happen, there’s a good chance global space infrastructure will be annihilated and humanity set back quite a ways. Setting up a space fairing civilization certainly won’t be something people care about for a very, very long time (this is reality, not Star Trek). I think it’s important to Elon that we have a self-sustaining presence on Mars with the capacity to actually manufacture spacecraft/rockets before this happens…


    1. but few people would want to spend years traveling to Mars and back.”
      Actually, there will be more people wanting to go to Mars than could really go there, for the adventure of a lifetime. Risky, yes. But this has been the whole story of human kind: a bunch of men accompanying Columbus overcame their fears. This continent America would never be inhabited if humans lacked curiosity and desire to explore and colonize unkown lands. Time for moon and mars.


      1. North and South America had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years before Columbus was born, most likely arrived at via incremental expansion along the north Pacific coast, at a time when sea level was 200m lower and it had one. It is hard to say how much curiosity, never mind desire to explore and colonize, that took. It seems likely they were moving to be closer to the next favored fishing spot.

        But we can anyway be certain Columbus wasn’t after unknown lands. He was after a trade route to a very well-known place, where there was big money to be made. He insisted, to his death, that that was what he had found.


  32. Casey, I stumbled across your post here and found it an awesome read. I had no real knowledge of what SpaceX was up to, but this give me great hope for the future. Things will work out. Thanks for this post.
    I located the Boca Chica facility using Google street view. Wow, the construction that’s taken place there in just the last two years is amazing. I’ve never seen so many cranes in one place before.,-97.1552702,3a,75y,198.93h,106.07t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s4BNjXZBLc8ZjQ_KsSXbNCw!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en
    Lastly, the battle of mindsets you described between the ‘hidebound’ NASA folks and the upstart private company put me in mind of the Human Genome Project from decades ago. The plan was for a gargantuan, lumbering project that would proceed in its own good time, until Craig Venter showed up with Celera Genomics. Then they were playing catch-up.


  33. Also… expect Boston Dynamic’s robots (current guards at StarBase and a Google product) Tesla’s for transport and Boring company borers for tunnels, mining and safe bunker building on his first unmanned missions to Mars. I would not be surprised to see landing pads built for the first human flights to land on. Later his AI’s and Quantum entangled compute clusters with maybe his brain interconnects. (yes he funds that too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  34. The Texas is considering extending the blast zone to include Houston Tx. The city is now included within the crater created by Space X’s Super Heavy booster explosion. Creation of the crater will be one of Elon Musk’s greatest accomplishments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A crater over 600km in radius would indeed be a great accomplishment. This seems akin to the suggestions that the LHC would create a black hole which would swallow the Earth.


  35. Casey, incredibly informative post. I agree with you, Starship matters. Not just for logistical lift into space but for point to point lift here on Earth. While I think using reusable rockets to transport humans on Earth may be at least a decade or more away, the military (USTRANSCOM) is looking in-depth about using rockets to transport cargo with flight times less than an hour. Once the “Holy Grail” of rocketry has been regularized, I think you’ll see the DoD latch on for special assignment airlift missions. What are your thoughts on Elon leveraging this point to point cargo capability to continue driving down costs for Heavy?


  36. well reading that you really get the point some of us have been saying for a few years, the industry has no response to SpaceX anyway and the Starship just makes the rest totally irrelevant, the best illustration I can think of is if you want to send something to china you could spend years,build ships, employ crew, build ports, and trucks, but you aren’t that stupid, you call the shipper who does it all in days for a tiny sum, that is what is coming SpaceX will be that shipper, as Elon said Starship is Game over ,


  37. Starship is very well understood, but it’s feared by intrenched interests. Elon Musk has created with SpaceX and the Starship an effort that NASA was intended to be but for politics. Musk deserves the strong support of all who are interested in going to space.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. It’s simple really, going back all the way to TSLA, they hate Musk. All these organizations, whose money it is that he is messing up, have friends in the US Govt. Bought and paid for, these establishments are well entrenched in the Govt., on Wall St., along with many other little corners of the greed corrupted world. This is the biggest challenge humanity faces right now, this changing of the guard that needs to happen. I’m hoping for a generational shift and financial uprising to be able to really change things. For the organization you are trying to save here, if my last sentence happens, then hopefully it came with a cultural shift for NASA.

    I really enjoyed reading this, we need change, and lot’s of it. You seem like someone who can see what needs to happen. Less bureaucrats, more STEM talent like yourself, making decisions. I wish us all the best.


  39. I’m looking forward to large-scale space development, but the critical question is what will be profitable enough to pay for it. Not tourism. My candidates: solar power, lunar helium-3 for fusion, or platinum-group metals from asteroids. Starship might make any of those practical.
    None of those candidates involve Mars, so I don’t foresee a colony there any time soon. However, a research station would be perfectly reasonable. Maybe they’ll discover something that would justify a colony. (A previous civilization??)


    1. Just incidentally, there will be no mining of lunar helium-3. (And, platinum-group metals from asteroids will take many decades to deliver value, if ever.) There is actually quite a lot of helium-3 mixed into terrestrial helium — plenty for any amount of fusion you are likely ever to want to do. Which really won’t be much, because solar is so darn cheap, and still getting cheaper.

      The “field-reversed configuration” (FRC) magnetic confinement design fusing He-3 to H-2 looks like it could be actually practical for spaceship propulsion. But it gets essentially no funding for development: Tokamak wastes all the fusion research dollars, probably because those flow mostly to weapons contractors. The advantage in using FRC for propulsion is that you get to exhaust the waste products–H-3, or tritium–that would otherwise also fuse and emit damaging neutrons and (IIRC) gamma rays.

      There is some faint hope that NASA could loft an FRC propulsion test article in 2035, and a Pluto probe maybe by 2045. But SpaceX, flush with Starlink cash, could pick up FRC fusion earlier, to use pushing cybertrucks to Mars, cutting down on LEO fuel-depot fill-up runs.

      The real value in space activity, for the foreseeable future, will be, as it has always been, mainly entertainment: Apollo was cancelled when it lost its entertainment value, but Cassini, Hubble, and Mars rovers have paid off in spades. Thus far space work has mostly diverted science and military research budgets to this purpose, but the public has no difficulty sourcing $billions directly for even trivial entertainments.

      So, to maintain a solid funding base for space work, it will be essential to keep space projects deeply entertaining. Inspiring, even.


      1. Meaning, after civilization collapses? Whoever’s left will need entertainment more than ever, but will be obliged to make do with local product. At least, plastic and CO2 effluent will plummet, and the billionaires will have moved to New Zealand.


  40. Something to think about is the B-36 entered into service in 1949, years after jets flew during WWII, as a piston driven prop plane for our flagship strategic bomber. The thing is it went into retirement after a decade of service and replacements such as the jet powered B-52 are still flying today with some current pilots having a grandfather who flew the same plane back in the day. So it took a while once we were in the jet age to turn the ship around and really be in the jet age.

    What seems to need to really happen as SpaceX is focused on chemical rockets is for agencies such as NASA to ramp up work on large scale efficient space based propulsion systems. While it sounds great and all to fly Starship to Mars on its own, it is really rather inefficient. If say you get up to 3% of your starting mass into LEO, which may be a bit of a push as 92% of your starting mass needs to be propellant and the remaining 8% everything else, something like only 10% of that can make it to Mars on a one way trip. In other words 0.3% of what started on Earth makes it to Mars.

    I break up the thought into two parts, cargo and crewed. I would think, especially with the transfer window to Mars and the launch capacity from Earth, you would want to load up a cargo and fuel hauler first and send that off as the slow boat to Mars. Maybe use a LFTR reactor powering an ion drive for the main propulsion as having a reactor get ~60% of its thermal energy converted to electricity while being light for the power it produces and then radiate the remaining heat into space is much more mass efficient than giant solar arrays to gather the same power. Then say your ion / plasma drive has an ISP of 5,000s, well the propulsion system is going to be a small part of the starting mass of your cargo and fuel hauler. That is a real game changer for going somewhere else in the solar system besides LEO where with LEO we are stuck with chemical propulsion. Then say you prepare a crewed ship to go out to Mars after you send off the robotic cargo and fuel hauler. Maybe you get a reusable NTP (nuclear thermal propulsion) booster ready to break orbit and then fly the booster back using multiple atmospheric skimming maneuvers to help it get back into LEO for a future run. Then maybe you use ion / plasma tech like for the cargo and fuel hauler to speed along the trip and some chemical drives for Mars capture. You rendezvous with the cargo and fuel hauler to get the supplies to complete the mission. At this the Starships you use will be task optimized, not generalists, so much more effectively used, and maybe the cargo and fuel hauler brings the propellant to get at least some Starships back to the ship and definitely haul up the engines from any one way Starships for reuse.

    I mean if NASA worked on this and other aspects of living away from Earth while SpaceX worked on getting into orbit, this is what would get us to be a true multi-planetary species. Just having SpaceX do everything, especially when it looks like they have not considered this more task optimized approach and may not have access to the nuclear tech to pull it off on their own would hinder this process of really expanding what we can effectively do in space and on other planets.


      1. Click to access AA103_Topic_13_Electric_Propulsion_2021_Jonny_Dyer.pdf

        The ships taking people to mars will be propelled by some form of very high specific impulse electric propulsion in which the power source is separate from the engine(s) and which doesn’t require refueling. Nobody is going to be fooling around with this refueling chemical rockets in orbit nonsense. Whether or not it’s ion rockets or some other form of electric propulsion, Ernst Stuhlinger basically had this figured out back in 1955, except Van Allen hadn’t discovered the radiation belts yet, so lunar orbit will likely be a better location for building ships.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s