The Quiet Revolution in Space Tech
What it means for the future of humanity
Humanity is on the cusp of a technological revolution that will change the course of history. In Boca Chica Texas, SpaceX is building a revolutionary new rocket, named Starship. Starship could reach orbit as soon as early 2023, and if successful, could reduce the cost of getting to space by 97 percent or more. The implications this has for humanity cannot be understated, but success isn’t guaranteed, this nascent industry needs further nurturing.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the mission of making space access affordable. At the time, the average cost of launching a satellite into orbit was around $10,000 per kilogram. This high cost greatly limits the commercial applications of space. To open up the industry, costs had to come down.
SpaceX launched its first rocket, the Falcon 1, in 2008. While the cheapest in the class of small launchers, Falcon 1 was still expensive on a per-kilogram basis. SpaceX scaled up this technology in 2010 and introduced the medium-lift Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 cost $60 million and can carry about 10.5 metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Some rough math puts the cost per kilogram at approximately $6000. This made Falcon 9 the cheapest launch vehicle in the world.
Since then, SpaceX has continued to evolve and improve that design. By 2018, Falcon 9 could launch up to 23 tons at a cost of just $62 million per flight, or about $2700 per kilogram. But further cost reductions require reusability. To that end, the Falcon 9 has also evolved into a partially reusable launch vehicle.
After delivering the payload to orbit and landing softly back on Earth, the rocket’s first stage and payload fairings are reusable up to ten times. Amortizing part of the rocket’s cost over 10 flights brings the price per kg to just $2000 or less.
The Holy Grail
But to make space truly affordable, we need to go a step further: full and rapid reusability. Rockets need to be like airliners: launch, land, inspect, refuel, and re-fly. This is the goal of the Starship at Boca Chica. The Starship rocket is many times larger than a Falcon 9 and will be able to launch 100-150 tons to orbit while being fully reusable. SpaceX has designed the first stage of Starship to be reusable as many as 1000 times and the second stage as many as 100 times.
Some rough math reveals just how revolutionary Starship could be, even if it fails to live up to SpaceX’s lofty expectations. Taking the pessimistic assumptions of a high marginal cost to build the rocket at $400 million, only achieving one-tenth of planned reusability, and the minimum planned launch capacity, Starship will still achieve a cost per kilogram to orbit of just $300.
In other words, on its worst day, Starship will reduce the cost of spaceflight by 97 percent from what it was just 15 years ago (see chart above). But if Starship ultimately lives up to all its goals for manufacturability and reuse, those costs could collapse to less than $15 per kilogram. Either way, Starship promises a sea change the likes of which have not been seen since the invention of the transistor or microchip.
Since the 1960s, the information revolution that followed the invention of the microchip has been a major driver of economic growth and innovation. However, there is evidence that Moore's law, which underpins that revolution, is slowing down, and this threatens global prosperity.
The nascent space industry could be the next driver of global growth, and like the 1960s IT revolution, few can imagine the profound ways that the space revolution could change the world. But we aren’t there yet. Governments around the world are still funding extractive regimes that divert funds away from true innovation and are failing to adopt supportive policies that enhance and sustain innovation. We are only as good as the policies we create.
If humanity is unable to seize upon a new source of growth, we could find the future to be one of slow socio-economic decay and not one of growth, prosperity, or one that excites the next generation. Time will tell if Starship succeeds, but if it does, humanity will be all the better for it.