It may not seem like it, but humanity is on the cusp of a revolution in spaceflight that will change the history of the future. In a field in Boca Chica Texas, a privately held American company called SpaceX is building a rocket that will completely upend the last 60 years of space exploration. This rocket, named Starship, could reach orbit as soon as early next year. If ultimately successful, starship opens the door to affordable access to space. It might even make lunar cruises possible in the next decade.
SpaceX is not without a track record of success. SpaceX was founded in 2002 with the sole mission of finding ways to make launching people and payloads into space more affordable. Back then, the cost of launching a satellite to space might ran around $10000 for every kilogram of weight that was lofted into orbit, often times more. That is a lot of money. In order to make space travel accessible for more people and businesses, this extreme cost had to come down. SpaceX launched its first rocket, called the Falcon 1, successfully for the first time in 2008. This was the first time that a private company had developed and launched its own rocket into orbit with its own money and technology. Prior to this, it was assumed that governments, with huge taxpayer budget bases and armies of engineers, were the only entities capable of achieving such a feat.
Falcon 1 Rocket
The Falcon 1, however, while the cheapest in the class of small launchers, it was not the cheapest rocket on a per kilogram basis. For this reason, just two years later, SpaceX scaled up this technology and launched a much larger rocket called the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 cost $60 million to build and launch and could carry about 10.5 metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Some rough math puts the cost per kilogram at approximately $6000. This made the Falcon 9 the cheapest launch vehicle in the world by a significant margin.
Since 2010, however, SpaceX has continued to evolve and improve the Falcon 9 design. By 2018, the Falcon 9 could launch up to 23 metric tons to LEO at a cost of just $62 million per flight. That comes to about $2700 per kilogram. In other words, in just under a decade, the cost to reach space had dropped by over 50%. What other goods or services can you think of have had such a dramatic reduction in price in this time frame?
Falcon 9 Rocket
Although SpaceX has certainly made the business of designing and building rockets much more efficient and far less costly, further cost reductions will require the holy grail of space access technology: full and rapid reusability. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Imagine if the 747 that you took to Costa Rica was not reusable. Imagine what your ticket price would be if your $450 million jet was tossed into the ocean upon your arrival. The prices would be truly astronomical.
For this reason, the Falcon 9 has also evolved to be partially reusable. The rocket’s first stage can use its own engines and fuel and land softly back on Earth after delivering its payload to orbit. This costs quite a bit of fuel and adds significant weight, therefore the total payload to LEO with partial reuse drops to about 15 metric tons, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Once perfected, the Falcon 9 first stage can be used up to 10 times and this could bring down launch costs to as low as $30 million as the cost of the first stage get amortized over 10 flights. This $30 million spread across 15 tons means that the total cost per kg falls to just $2000.
Landing a Falcon 9 back on Earth for Reuse
The Starship rocket being assembled in Boca Chica, however, takes reusability to a new level. The Starship rocket is many times larger than a Falcon 9. It will be able to launch an astonishing 100 to 125 tons to LEO. It will be able to do this while reusing both the first AND second stages of the rocket. Because this rocket will have been designed and built from the ground up to be fully reusable, it should end up much cheaper and easier to reuse. 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 back of the envelope math reveals just how revolutionary Starship will be. Even if we assume that this large rocket will cost about $400 million to build (about the same as a large jet airliner…although SpaceX asserts that they will be able to build the rocket much more cheaply.) That costs gets amortized over a large number of flights. If we assume that SpaceX only achieves one tenth of the planned reusability (100 for the first stage and 10 for the second stage) adding some cost for refurbishment, the cost per launch ends up around $30 million. Given that each flight can launch a minimum of 100 tons, that comes to a cost per kilogram of just $300.
The Starship Rocket (center) will even eclipse the size of the mighty Saturn V.
Bear in mind, these numbers are calculated with the minimum expected payload and one-tenth of the planned reusability. Therefore, the Starship rocket, at worst, will still cut the cost of getting to space to about 1/7th of what is possible with the Falcon 9, and about one-tenth of what it costs today. If SpaceX achieves the planned reusability and manufacturing costs, other the other hand, launch costs could end up lower than $100 per kilogram.
At these lower costs, it becomes vastly cheaper and easier to launch communications satellites, space probes, government spy satellites, and people into space. Indeed, vastly lower launch costs will make new types of space-based businesses possible. This may include space-based advertising, space tourism, asteroid mining…etc. The world should be paying attention to what SpaceX is doing out in Boca Chica. What happens there in the next year will alter the course of human history.