Why Starship Is The Holy Grail For SpaceX
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thinks that the holy grail to making life multiplanetary lies in humanity’s ability to make a completely reusable rocket system that can carry a massive amount of equipment, supplies and people deep into space. That’s why SpaceX has created Starship. The critical threshold to pass one of the most important great filters for any species is to have have the the other planet no longer dependent on on the original planet. Starship is capable of doing that. It’s capable of getting a million tons to the surface of Mars and creating a self-sustaining city. And I think we should try to do that as soon as we can. Starship is SpaceX’s largest reusable rocket. The company’s been testing Starship prototypes for several years, but none so far have reached space. As SpaceX has encountered both technical and regulatory hurdles. Aside from a potential breakthrough for space travel, Starship is in many ways also indispensable for the future of SpaceX. Many analysts and experts have said if SpaceX succeeds with Starship and therefore with Starlink, that could create and generate SpaceX into a company that’s not an $100 billion valuation company, but a trillion dollar valuation company or more. Private sector funding in space-related companies topped $10 billion in 2021, a tenfold increase over the past decade. Traditionally, most of that funding has concentrated on activities closer to Earth, such as building out satellite communications. But there’s evidence that this may be changing. Recently, there’s been increased focus on lunar, so the moon and beyond. Think moon, Mars, deeper planetary exploration. Lunar and beyond investment was about $1 billion from private investors in 2021, the highest sum we’d seen to date. Even before founding SpaceX, Elon Musk had dreamed of reaching Mars, and Starship is the means to that end. The first thing you notice about Starship is that it’s monstrous. The vehicle is made up of two stainless steel components. At the bottom stands, the first stage Super Heavy booster. Stacked on top is the second stage Starship spacecraft, which will be able to carry more than 100 metric tons of cargo and crew per launch. Collectively referred to as “Starship,” the two components loom nearly 400 feet into the air, almost 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. To get all of this weight off the ground is no easy task and will require thirty three of SpaceX’s Raptor engines for the booster and another seven engines for the Starship spacecraft. To get an idea of just how powerful Starship is, it’s helpful to compare it to Saturn V, which was the rocket used by NASA to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo mission. The Saturn V was 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and Starship is 17, so it’s more than twice the thrust of a Saturn V, which was the largest rocket ever to get to orbit. Musk says SpaceX’s next generation rocket is also more economical than Saturn V. The cost efficiency of SpaceX is the best in history, I think, for for any rocket development. We are talking about a rocket that’s more than twice the mass and thrust of a Saturn V and also designed to be fully reusable, which is obviously also much better for from an environmental standpoint, to have a fully reusable rocket. For a development cost that is between five and 10 percent of Saturn V. The key to lowering costs is reusability. SpaceX sells its smaller Falcon 9 rockets for between $60 and $90 million, but has brought the cost per launch down to under $30 million by landing the booster, the most expensive part of the rocket, and using it multiple times. With Starship, SpaceX hopes to go one step further, reusing both the Starship spacecraft and the booster. The booster is going to take off and then fly back to the launch tower and, aspirationally, land on the arms. Which does sound insane. If it does come in too fast, and shear off the arms, then I guess it will be, a farewell to arms. The retrieval of the Starship spacecraft seems equally challenging. The idea is for Starship to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on its side, its heat shield covered belly, protecting the vehicle from the intense temperature. Closer to the ground, Starship’s Raptor engines will kick in and flip the vehicle vertically for landing. Starship has yet to fly any missions, but the project has already brought in some major funding for SpaceX. SpaceX has new contract revenue streams through a major NASA deal to use Starship for the agency’s Artemis program to deliver astronauts to the moon’s surface by the middle of this decade. SpaceX was the sole winner of the nearly $3 billion contract, beating out Blue Origin and Dynetics. NASA has begun paying in hundreds of millions of dollars to SpaceX already towards that development contract. The majority of SpaceX’s revenue comes from its launch business. The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy series of rockets have been generating upwards of $2 to $3 billion of revenue a year for the company. They’ve been able to generate a lot of returns through rideshare programs, through delivering cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA and other international partners and, more recently, been delving into flying private astronauts. But SpaceX’s golden egg will likely be Starlink, a satellite internet business which is expected to eventually surpass SpaceX’s rocket business. Elon Musk has previously estimated that the company’s Starlink business could generate revenues of upwards of $30 billion a year. Starlink is a global internet satellite network made up of thousands of satellites known as a constellation. SpaceX has so far launched around 2,000 satellites, but the company has said that around 12,000 satellites would be needed before the constellation is fully operational. Eventually, SpaceX hopes to bump that number up to 42,000 satellites. The service has over 145,000 customers, but startup costs for the project are steep, and SpaceX is currently losing money on Starlink. Musk recently expanded Starlink service to Ukraine at the request of the country’s vice prime minister. In early March, Musk tweeted that Starship development may be delayed as SpaceX focuses on aiding Ukraine. Under the current deployment plan for getting the number of Starlink satellites that SpaceX needs in orbit to get the system truly operational and global, and providing service as broadly as they desire, it’s very, very difficult to see how SpaceX will be able to achieve that in both a cost efficient and a timely manner without Starship. Falcon 9 currently can carry roughly 50 to 60 Starlink satellites at a time into low-Earth orbit. However, SpaceX executives have said before that the goal with Starship and its current design is to launch 400 Starlink satellites at a time into low-Earth orbit. With the fates of Starship and Starlink so closely intertwined, the pressure is on for SpaceX to get Starship off the ground, but the company faces some steep challenges Right now, of any technical problem, I’m spending the most time personally on on Raptor 2. In November of 2021, Musk sent out a companywide email to SpaceX employees, warning them that a Raptor engine production crisis created a risk of bankruptcy for the company. Later, Musk seemed to temper his message on Twitter, saying that while bankruptcy was unlikely, it was not impossible. More recently, Musk said that SpaceX is making good progress with regard to Raptor 2 production. We’re close to achieving a Raptor 2 everyday production rate, so we’re sort of seven a week, which is tough for a complex engine. And I think by the end of this year, we’ll be able to produce a ship and a booster per month. The only remaining issue that we’re aware of is melting the chamber. It’s like on the order of a gigawatt of heat. So it’s like what a nuclear power plant produces. So it really is desperately trying to melt at any point in time. In order to understand this challenge, it helps to know a little bit about rocket engine design. A rocket engine in a simple form. It’s simple you just have a what is referred to as a thrust chamber, a combustion chamber. You just bring in oxygen and your fuel and you’re burning it into that chamber. The challenge is that chamber is running at really, really high pressures and really, really high temperatures. So doing that means that, you know, first is I need to be higher pressure to push the propellant in. But then this chamber has to be able to handle the temperatures that is seen inside. As the oxygen and fuel burn, they eject a high pressure gas from the nozzle, which in turn propels the rocket into the air. While most rocket engines use either kerosene or hydrogen as fuel, Spacex decided to make its Raptor 2 engines run on methane. SpaceX used methane primarily because it’s the perfect balance between hydrogen being an expensive fuel and challenging to operate, versus kerosene, which is yes, it’s cheaper, but energy density is lower compared to methane. The key challenges with using methane is that it will run actually hotter than the typical kerosene. So SpaceX have publicly noted that they’ve developed special alloys to handle the higher temperature of methane. But despite these challenges, methane also has other advantages. One of the components that erode these engines is fuel coking, which is worse with rocket propellant, kerosene-based fuels, but it’s actually less of a problem with methane. Coking is essentially the soot that you see coming out of your car exhaust. It’s primarily unburned fuel that is, essentially heated at really high temperatures and pressures, and that could go into fuel injectors inside the engine. It could coat surfaces. It influences your efficiency of your engine. Another plus that Elon Musk has talked about in the past is the ability to easily create methane on Mars and use it as a fuel for the return trip to Earth. SpaceX has steadily been building up its testing and production facility, known as Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas, since 2015. The move has garnered mixed reactions from locals, some saying that Starbase has helped create jobs and attract tourists, and others claiming the complex has displaced a beachfront community and endangered wildlife. Early tests of Starship have also been a mixed bag. While SpaceX has had a number of successful Starship launches, the company has lost several prototypes during landing attempts. In May 2021, SpaceX successfully completed its first high-altitude test without the Starship rocket being destroyed. Besides technical problems, Starship also faces regulatory challenges. The next major milestone for Starship is the orbital flight test. They’ve been really trying to get across this major hurdle of getting an environmental assessment completed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which would give them the key launch license to take those tests from just short flights to all the way launching into space. The FAA has said it would complete its environmental assessment by March 28th, but that date could be pushed farther if the agency decides that it needs more time to do a deeper review. Musk said that if this were the case, SpaceX would consider launching Starship from its other location in Florida. I guess our worst case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months, to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there. SpaceX’s $100 billion valuation, makes it one of the most valuable private companies in the world. For the last several years, they’ve been raising billions of dollars annually from a broad range of investors and steadily increasing their valuation. As far as we can tell, most of the funding for Starship’s development comes from outside investors who are buying the currently privately traded stock that SpaceX holds in exchange for capital that the company can use to fund that development. SpaceX has previously said that Starship would cost upwards of $5 billion to develop, whereas the Starlink satellite internet program could cost anywhere between $5 and $10 billion to develop. So investors getting in at this late stage might be less willing to put more money behind the project if they know that they’ve hit a roadblock. Beyond just benefiting SpaceX, experts believe that having a rocket like Starship that’s able to lug a massive amount of stuff into space will open up opportunities for other companies. When you look at the infrastructure in space today, the International Space Station, other assets, they were required to be assembled piecemeal in space because we were limited in the ability to carry mass to space. If you now can create much larger systems or infrastructure that can be brought whole up to space, it requires less complexity, less on-orbit assembly and thus is overall more efficient, helps drive creation of a space economy. Musk agrees that Starship would be widely beneficial. One of the rebuttals will sometimes hear is like, sure, but what about all the problems on Earth? And I completely agree that the vast majority of resources should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth. Absolutely. I’d say, like more than 99 percent of our resources should be oriented towards solving problems on Earth. It’s important to note that NASA’s annual budget is only .36 percent of the federal budget, and, in fact, of the national GDP it’s less than a tenth of a percentage point. Given the establishing security for life itself and having an exciting future and inspiring kids about the future, I think it’s it’s worth it. Let’s go out there and find out what this universe is all about.