Starship’s Bounty

Starship’s Bounty

Hywel Curtis chatted with me on satsearch’s Space Industry Podcast. It was a fun conversation! We talked about some of the challenges in the launch industry, SpaceX (of course), and a few other things. It’s about a half-hour long if you’re interested: Insights into the launch segment, upcoming missions, and global space industry – with John Holst.

That Which We Call An ICBM by Any Other Name…

Last week, on March 14, 2024, SpaceX conducted what turned out to be the most-watched suborbital rocket test in the world (Esrange would have been thrilled by these numbers). Many applauded the company for conducting what, at least to my ex-missileer’s eyes, appeared to be an ICBM test using an inaccurate and ineffective re-entry system. 

That’s written tongue-in-cheek, but there is truth in my cheekiness. SpaceX has taken several years to demonstrate that it understands suborbital mechanics. It might be more helpful to look at what the company’s Starship operation offers now instead of what it might bring when it finally deploys spacecraft into orbit. Some interesting prospects are emerging from these Starship tests, only…they aren’t the ones SpaceX has publicly stated it’s aiming for.

A year after the first orbital Starship launch attempt, space nerderati and stakeholders are still waiting for evidence that all of the Starship marketing promises will come to pass. A suborbital Starship launch, while spectacular, isn’t that evidence. Will Starship be reusable? Not in the configuration of that last launch, for sure, when the first stage hit the water at over 1,000 km/h. The upper stage also displayed some challenges for reusability. Based on the current test results, the promise of launching payloads to space (or Mars) for much less remains unfulfilled. 

However, it was supposed to be a test launch, so those marketing promises can be safely ignored for now (as the company continues to do). The third test shows progress, but not at the pace promised in late 2019. Starship hit its modest but critical benchmarks during the latest test, such as not blowing up on stage separation, not blowing up after stage separation, or even not blowing up in space. Those are shared successes between Starship’s third test and ULA’s first Vulcan test launch. But they have little else in common, as Vulcan managed to get its payload to orbit and beyond (Peregrine, remember?). Vulcan’s first launch was a literal moonshot.

Starship’s third orbital launch test highlighted some improvements over the previous two tests. In its latest test, Starship could have carried a payload to orbit, such as a couple of Cybertrucks. Or, because of the Starship satellite dispensing system, crushed Cybertrucks would have fit better. Some kind of deployment would have at least demonstrated that Starship was an orbital-capable system. But none of that happened (nor did SpaceX say they were going to do that).

SpaceX will figure out the first-stage return problem because of its Falcon 9 experience. It’s unclear if second-stage reuse will be as simple for the company to solve. However, the third Starship test revealed more immediate SpaceX opportunities than the promise of the rocket’s ability to deploy more spacecraft to orbit.

Innovation Engine

For example, I'd be intensely worried if I were a rocket engine manufacturer. SpaceX threw away more engines (117) during its three Starship tests in one year than ULA during all of its launches from 2006 through 2015. None of the 78 engines used in launching the Starships failed during the last two tests. 

There are at least two data points: SpaceX has made a lot of engines, and those engines have gotten reliable. It’s not a secret that SpaceX has been manufacturing many of its Raptor engines for Starship. Each Starship must have 39 engines (33 for the first stage, six for the second), so the company had to work out how to build a lot of them quickly. SpaceX has done this, updating them along the way.

One way for the company to recoup a little bit more from its Starship investments is to offer a product from it to customers. SpaceX is already doing this with its Starshield program despite the constant production of Starlink satellites. The latest news stories emphasize how far along the company is in gaining high-paying satellite customers. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to believe the company might offer Raptors to those looking for alternatives to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s or Blue Origin’s offerings. 

SpaceX’s challenge would be drumming up business for its Raptors, especially when many startups seem more interested in manufacturing small satellite launch vehicles. However, the fact remains that the company has a rocket engine manufacturing capability that outstrips competitors (should it choose to go that route). SpaceX could sell its Raptors almost as a side business. 

There’s little downside to SpaceX's decision to sell engines, especially since it’s already building them for itself. The company has demonstrated a disposition to aggressively move into areas of opportunity, and rocket engines might be another area, especially considering the possible competition. 

I’ve already compared SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s rocket engine manufacturing. BO will have to up its manufacturing to catch up with SpaceX’s engine production. Aerojet will also need to increase production to keep up with SpaceX. The company stated in late 2023 that it produces about 16-18 engines per year but could increase output to 40. That would still be far behind SpaceX’s production.

Again, this might be a chicken-and-egg scenario: Few rocket engine customers were available because the rocket engines being sold were few and expensive. If a less expensive engine becomes available, more customers might show interest. Or, they might not. If SpaceX starts selling its engines, it will squeeze into an already small market (there’s a reason why Aerojet’s production rate is so low). The existing stakeholders in that market tend to move slowly (similar to the legacy launch companies).

Ubiquitous Space Communications

Another revelation for opportunity wasn’t about Starship but the use of Starlink to maintain contact with Starship through the critical parts of its flight. That Starlink was used for Starship communications wasn’t a surprise. However, it was surprising to see the environments in which the communication system could still be used.

The satellites relayed much information (generally in real time) about the launch vehicle and upper stage until close to the flight’s very end. Watching the Starship upper stage was fascinating, especially upon atmospheric reentry. I felt a certain amount of surprise in seeing the reentry portion with so little interruption in the data stream. I’m sure no real-time video of a space vehicle reentry has ever been seen before the Starship test. 

SpaceX's ability to communicate with Starship during that time and the resulting images were fascinating. Based on its performance for monitoring Starship, it’s a little surprising the capability hasn’t been used with SpaceX’s Dragon capsules, particularly during reentry. Such visual telemetry could be a valuable addition to the telemetry on which NASA and SpaceX rely.

The company’s ability to do this suggests some interesting applications for a constellation like Starlink, especially for space situational awareness, mission services, insurance, etc. It could even be helpful for rocket upper stages. The system allows the opportunity to maintain a data connection almost through a launch and reentry. The broadcast data would seem necessary for space launch and traffic control purposes. 

While governments might prefer a dedicated system for space safety, a Kuiper, OneWeb, or Starlink connection with low latency but lots of bandwidth is likely a good compromise. The beauty of commercial LEO internet relay satellite constellations is that at least two are operational, with a few more on the way. SpaceX, in particular, has Starshield, which is an appropriate way for governments to quickly get a dedicated space traffic control communications constellation in orbit.

Kuiper and others surely must have had similar thoughts as they watched the Starship launch footage.

It’s well for competitors to keep an eye on the other technology SpaceX is manufacturing to make Starship a reality. One example, Starship’s hexagonal heat tiles, appeared to work well during the latest test. If appearances prove true, then that’s yet another possibly useful derivative. The company must have a factory manufacturing mass-producing those tiles. They likely can be applied to spacecraft other than Starship. It’s unclear if they are manufactured inexpensively, but the possibility is there due to SpaceX’s willingness to “test” them on Starship.

SpaceX is taking incremental steps to make Starship a reality. While taking those steps, it’s had to invest in various technologies and develop processes. Engines, communications, and other technology are undoubtedly valuable to Starship. But even without Starship, those technologies could be used to fulfill more immediate customer demands. And SpaceX has already shown a willingness to leverage its investments by offering them on the market (laser crosslink terminals, for the latest example). Until SpaceX gets Starship fully reusable and uses it to deploy payloads in orbit, the potential business derivatives remain the most interesting part of the program.