As Starship prototype 8 (SN8) rolls out to the launchpad, Spacex is gearing up for some critical tests in what amounts to a race against itself. With prototype 8 on the test stand and construction on prototype 9, 10, and 11 already well underway, you might wonder…why the urgency? Why is a company that is at least a decade ahead of the competition already attempting to make its own products obsolete?
For one reason, look no further than the company’s culture. Since its founding, Spacex has largely avoided patents to protect its IP. Rather than rely on patents to keep the competition at bay, Musk prefers that the company simply keep outrunning them. In other words, rather than protecting their past innovation, they continue looking toward future innovation. The Starship rocket will indeed make their barely decade-old Falcon series rockets obsolete…but that is precisely the point. Spacex has demonstrated an unusual willingness to make its own products obsolete, even if it they haven’t recouped the investments made into them. At Spacex, the sunk cost fallacy need not apply.
The second reason that Spacex is rushing to complete work on Starship: an impending NASA “deadline.” It is no secret that Spacex seeks NASA as a partner in the Starship project, which Musk estimates will cost the company about $5 billion. For Starship, funding is the primary constraint to success, not technology. Thus far, NASA has committed just $135 million to the project in Phase 1 of the HLS program. The HLS (Human Landing System) is part of the broader Artemis Program to land the first woman on the Moon. Spacex wants additional money in Phase 2, but whether or not Starship is selected by NASA for additional funding is dependent upon their ability to demonstrate progress on key technologies, namely the difficult “flip maneuver” that is required for reentry and landing, as well as cryogenic fuel transfer in orbit.
As the Phase 1 winners were announced in April, judging for Phase 2 awards are already quietly underway, so it is imperative that Spacex instill as much confidence in NASA as possible. That said, I personally believe that the odds of Starship being chosen for funding in Phase 2 is rather low. The Starship program is too ambitious and doesn’t “fit” well within the Artemis architecture that revolves around the archaic SLS launch platform.
The government has a duty to support nascent technology development. Spacex has a track record of success, partly due to its corporate culture, in breaking through key barriers that have kept humanity earthbound. As Starship is the only fully reusable rocket concept on the table right now, we can only hope that NASA makes the right choice and continues their support of the Starship project. But NASA’s support and respect has to be earned, so Spacex will continue cranking out Starship prototypes as fast as they can.