Most people have heard of SpaceX, the company by Elon Musk that was the first to fly and land an orbital class rocket… and then fly and land two of them simultaneously.
However few people I talk to seem to have ever heard of their next rocket, the SpaceX Starship. This is a shame I think as if successful, it will fundamentally change Space and humanity forever and I don’t use that phrase lightly either.
Current Space Reality
Currently there are many countries and private companies all launching things into space all the time. SpaceX has captured a huge majority of that market with their Falcon 9 rocket too. However the industry as a whole is still stuck on the same general level it has been for 100 years. Flying a rocket and then having part or virtually all of it destroyed.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been tremendous advances especially over the past one to two decades. As mentioned, SpaceX has started and continued to fly their partially reusable rocket Falcon 9. This has allowed them to crush launch costs and hugely undercut everyone else all while flying “proven boosters” as they call them. That is, boosters that have launched and landed previous, some up to four times already.
3D printing of parts is huge in both the aviation and space industries making for stronger, lighter and cheaper components that are faster to build too. In rockets every kilo of weight counts, even more so when you need that fuel to land the booster. In many cases 3D printing of parts has also enabled previously impossible parts to come into existence or the combination of multiple previous parts into one.
Faster, smaller, lighter computers running on less power has also helped to reduce the size of satellites and again make rockets lighter and more capable. This has also enabled things like the Starlink satellite based Internet system SpaceX is also launching.
That is to say, advances have been many and great… but they are advances not revolutions. The computers have gotten smaller and faster gradually and in incremental steps. 3D printed parts are incrementally smaller/cheaper/stronger than their previously hand made parts not something entirely new.
These advances have been gradual and has resulted in a consistent decline in the cost it takes to launch 1 kilo into space. In 1981 it cost around $85,000/kg to send stuff to Earth orbit on the then new Space Shuttle. Now currently in 2020 they estimate it costs around $950/kg to send that same stuff to orbit via the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. That’s a reduction of around 85x over a 40 year period which is pretty awesome, but it’s not a revolution.
A Starship Revolution
Although an 85x reduction in cost is impressive… you’ll note that it was over a 40 year period. This represents continuous advancement and gradual iteration and improvement. SpaceX’s new Starship however will be a full blown revolution. Elon has publicly stated they’re aiming to enable a roughly 100x further reduction in costs over only a few years time.
Yes, you read that right: 150 tons to orbit at $10/kg.
That cost per kilo is currently estimated to be achieved by around 2050 but if SpaceX’s can continue with the already great progress they’ve made it’ll be a reality in a few years. Even going to Mars will only cost roughly $100/kg apparently.
While you might be reading this and think “ok… $10/kilo… so what?” let me put that another way. If I want to send a package from one state to another here in Australia and I do it via just normal, Australia Post postage in a 40 x 30 cm box that weights 1 kg it’ll cost me about $10 USD.
Think about that for a second… SpaceX is saying that they’ll be able to send that same kilo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the same amount of money as what Australia Post can. That is ridiculous!
This represents nothing short of a revolution I believe as it changes what we should view a rocket as. It’s no longer going to be some awesomely expensive transport vessel reserved only for multi-billion dollar government programs. No, it’s now just like a delivery truck.
Want to put a 10 kg nano-satellite in orbit for some reason? That’ll be $100 USD! Sure, the development costs might be a bit more but with super cheap electronics and free, open source software along with free online courses a plenty these days it could be shockingly cheap to do. It could easily be a at home, personal project for a single person to do depending on what the bureaucratic costs are.
Democratisation Of Space
Government programs as well as huge companies will still obviously spend billions on huge satellites and sending things to the Moon or Mars. However with Starship I think we’ll see a revolution occur where your everyday person can get in on the action too.
These “home made projects” wouldn’t necessarily need to be super small, limited things either. Sure, you could launch simple static satellites that just float around and eventually burn up in the Earths atmosphere. But at $10/kg you could also launch really robust ones that have things like cold gas thrusters to keep it in orbit for many years, robotic arms or even in built return vehicles.
Why would you as a person want to send something to space you ask? Well there’s a huge array of reasons I can think of right now, not to mention the many that will be invented as time goes on. You could:
- Build and send your very own remote controlled car or aerial drone to the Moon and drive/fly it around, take photos, explore and search for breakthroughs or just have races with other peoples Moon buggies
- Build and send your very own satellite into orbit to have it monitor just your own personal house for things like weather, pollution or even security
- Buy and send your very own telescope and camera to orbit or even the Moon to do astrophotography (imagine the insane photos you could get!)
- Build and send your own robots to asteroids, the Sun, other planets or even deep space to search, take photos, test soils or bring back samples (imagine if you found proof of life?)
Then there’s all the weird and wonderful use cases that might only be important to one single individual. Think of it like the huge Arduino or Raspberry Pie communities out there making personal projects or developing prototypes for start up companies. The same thing could be built around the now cheap space launch costs. Maybe there will be a Space Arduino that gets launched. It could have a solar panel and battery all built into it along with standardised modules for things like satellite communications back to Earth instead of the WiFi ones they have now.
Perhaps companies will form to coordinate the launches of hundreds of thousands of nano-satellites or micro-satellites from individuals each week. Just like you’d pop down to the post office to send a parcel, maybe Australia Post or UPS will start their own separate Space delivery divisions. They could partner with SpaceX, deliver your satellite, complete all the required paperwork and approvals and ensure it meets the appropriate requirements for space travel and sell it to individuals as a total service/package.
With the proper companies and products in place you could buy your Space Arduino for maybe $100, add a USB camera to it, program it all up at home and then pop down to the post office to send it eventually into orbit!
This will do to the Space industry what the Apple App Store did to the phone industry. Huge, world wide democratisation of who will now have access to space and the things they can do there.
Exponentially Increasing Discovery
Obviously there are many other ramifications for Starship and the sheer insane changes it will bring to the Space industry. With SpaceX being able to build 1 full Starship per week, them being fully reusable and Elon wanting to fly them each 1-2 times per day we’re talking a whole different ball game. SpaceX will have a fleet of Starships and they damn well better call them “Starfleet” or I’ll be pissed!
Putting a 1 ton satellite into orbit currently costs about $28,000,000 USD. When SpaceX can do it for $10,000 and has multiple launches occurring everyday (making delays a non-issue for companies) I don’t foresee there being much competition. They’ll basically own the whole launch industry.
Add to that companies and government will now be able to launch much heavier and physically bigger satellites and we’ll likely see new, never before possible satellites being launched. Space Hotels and Space tourism will be far more profitable and thus, possible. Potential Earth to Earth launches could disrupt the aviation industry not to mention the freight industry too.
Then there’s the main reason for Starship and SpaceX’s creation in the first place, to get a fully sustainable Mars colony up and functioning. All of these things will revolutionise the Space industry and the world. However space is vast, so exploring it needs to be done at an exponentially increasing rate.
If we can enable and encourage millions of people to build, launch and explore our solar system it’ll hugely help push humanity forward. A few hundred companies and governments can’t even begin to scratch the surface of exploring space. Currently SpaceX with it’s historically “fast paced” launching schedule launched 13 rockets in 2019. With Starship that could easily be above 10,000 launches at 150 tons each in the first year alone.
That could mean 150 million 10 kg micro-satellites being sent out into the universe just in one year. Each one being controlled by an individual or small company, using it to have fun, explore various asteroids, the Moon, other planets and of course Earth. This is a true step in kind moment, a complete turning on its head of potentially multiple industries.
Anyone who’s even remotely interested in space or exploration should be glued to the various information feeds that report on SpaceX’s daily progress in building and testing Starship. A few great examples are:
If you have children I’d encourage you to also show them it all too as it makes for incredibly inspiring news and who knows, maybe one day they’ll be launching on a Starship to Mars themselves!
For now though looking at the following or subscriber counts of those most popular accounts (142,000 at most) it doesn’t seem like too many people are paying attention to it all. Not a huge surprise I guess given it’s a highly technical field and doesn’t involve the Kardashians but more should.
A new space era is dawning, one with tens of thousands of the biggest rocket launches ever built happening a year. With everyone on the planet included, with individual space exploration missions possible in the hundreds of millions per year.
One that will see humanity not just take one small step into the solar system, but millions of them in all shapes and forms. Where discoveries and breakthroughs will gush in and feed back into every field and industry on Earth further accelerating us all. Where cities will begin to form on other planets and moons and where we will finally become a multi-planetary species. Surely that’s worth you attention no?
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