Those looking for a glimpse of the space industry's future need to look no further than the Starship test SpaceX conducted yesterday. For those who haven’t seen it, they should look at just what happened: https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/index.html. Go to the 1.46 mark in the video to see the launch. It is clear the company will be fielding its Starship launch system in the not-so-distant future.
Despite what happens in the end, the test-launch was a success for SpaceX. The test demonstrated:
- Raptor engines work. In this test, at least one Raptor operated for nearly 300 seconds.
- SpaceX knows about controlling rocket orientation in the atmosphere. It’s one thing for Falcon 9 first stages to fall to the Earth engine-first, but Starship’s aerobatics were as impressive for how well-controlled it was, whether vertical or flat.
- Stainless steel seems to work very well for the rocket’s body. This was a critical design decision Musk made, saving his company millions per rocket.
- Starship’s production line seems very mature. The company is anticipating more testing with SN9, the next Starship in line. Soon.
- It will be a while before humans travel in a Starship.
First of all, Starship launched and achieved the desired altitude with apparent ease. The three Raptor engines that powered it to that altitude were new but seemed to work as designed. As the rocket increased altitude, one, then eventually a second, shut off, probably as planned since the rocket still reached the correct altitude. The last one fired for nearly a full four-and-a-half minutes before shutting off for reentry.
Reentry appeared to work as planned, with what looked like nose thrusters pushing Starship’s nose down, so its body was in a “freefall” position. The rocket remained stable, with no spinning. Even its quick pivot back, moving the engines to point back towards the Earth, seemed unreasonably smooth. It’s just the landing that was a little too hard, resulting in an explosion as the rocket buckled into the ground. But SpaceX is a veteran at addressing that problem.
There are still many steps to go before SpaceX has a working Starship/Super Heavy launch system. With that curt acknowledgment out of the way, the latest Starship test is a concrete example of the company’s progress with its second stage. Almost everything seemed to work--except the landing. Starship is the more challenging part of the system the company is working on. Compared with Starship, the Super Heavy first stage booster launching it to space will do what the Falcon 9 first-stage already does. Except it’s much bigger.
Still, there are many more explosive tests to go before Starship becomes reliable. But right now, SpaceX proved it can do with Starship what it and other launch service providers around the world do, which is launch rockets. If the test doesn’t get these other launch service providers concerned, then perhaps the company’s Starship launch cost estimates will.
Low-Cost Launches and Other Impacts
Less than a month ago, Elon Musk reiterated that Starship’s marginal cost for launching 100+ tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) would be less than $1 million. Fixed costs may add a half million to that estimate, so maybe $1.5 million to launch 100+ tons to LEO. That’s $15 per kilogram, which is unbelievably inexpensive. To put that in perspective, if it cost $15 per kilogram for SpaceX to use its Falcon 9 to launch 60 Starlink satellites, the total would be $234,000--an extremely affordable launch option. But it doesn’t. A Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites costs around $1,500/kg-- $24 million (more or less).
And the Falcon 9 is one of the less expensive options out there, even when upping the launch costs to what customers pay. SpaceX is, as expected, moving the launch-cost goalposts even further down with Starship. If SpaceX’s launch costs for Starship hold, what happens with the projected new launch vehicles (Vulcan, Ariane 6, etc.) from competitors? They haven’t gone through a single test launch, are projected to cost less than $100 million, and when they come online, they will be facing Starship. They were supposed to be cost-competitive with the Falcon 9 and were already failing in that endeavor.
Meanwhile, those established companies keep aiming for where they wish the goal would be. But are they working on anything that will even reasonably compete with what will be SpaceX’s latest offering within the next few years? That is, anything aside from public sniping about fictional subsidies for SpaceX or scrambling to lock in more national security space launches before the U.S. Department of Defense gets wise?
How can those companies get a return on their rocket investments if the bottom is about to fall out from under them? To be sure, Europe--especially France--views Arianespace as a showcase of European can-do. And it could-did, taking a healthy part of the commercial launch market for a few decades. They will not allow Arianespace to fail--like GM, it’s too big to fail. But it will take a while for them to adjust to the new reality if they continue with pre-agreed-upon programs. In the meantime, they’ve been pleased to push Ariane 6 as the best European launch option.
Simultaneously, the DoD is determined to do what it can to keep ULA from folding. It wants at least two companies to launch its costly satellites. Northrop Grumman doesn’t have a rocket close to those launched by ULA and SpaceX. There is no other U.S. company out there with a rocket that compares to the lift capabilities of ULA’s or SpaceX’s rockets. So ULA will also be somewhat safe, even if the DoD ends up paying nearly 90 times for a ULA Vulcan launch versus a SpaceX Starship launch.
Of course, the program to watch will be NASA’s Space Launch System. It, too, has yet to test-launch anything. In essence, no matter what fans and administrators say, it’s a U.S. national pride project, an attempt to launch the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower/Washington Monument to space, but for $2 billion per launch. It’s not necessary. And it would cost NASA less to use current launch systems from all U.S. launch services today with some tweaking. Maybe the difference of $1.5 million for Starship and $2 billion for SLS will be more obvious? SLS certainly won’t launch as often as Starship.
The Beginning of the End (For Expensive Launch Services)?
Starship/Super Heavy is supposed to launch many times per day. For Starship, Musk said it would launch 3-4 times per day. Super Heavy would end up launching 20 times per day. No company, not even SpaceX, has come close to achieving that operational tempo. Certainly, no spaceport can support that level of activity. But the projected launch rates display just how confident SpaceX is in the reliability of its upcoming system, which is where we are after this test-launch.
Starship is no longer a thing a person can caveat with “...if SpaceX succeeds in building it.” The test shows how far Starship has come, which can’t be said about New Glenn, Vulcan, Ariane 6, etc. Even if it never becomes the Mars passenger liner Musk wants it to be, Starship will still be an extremely capable and inexpensive rocket.
It will change how satellites are launched and attract customers who would never have considered launch before because of cost. It will impact the cubesat/smallsat industry and even seduce the DoD into paying less for launch. It will make the launch part of the space industry an actual market, not a gaggle of launch providers pursuing government contracts to survive. But other competitors must field rockets that can compete against SpaceX. That will take a while.
I wouldn’t bet against Musk about Mars, either.