SpaceX Starship Economics Could Enable Making Life Multiplanetary, 'Full & Rapid Reusability Is The Holy Grail', says Elon Musk

Evelyn Arevalo by Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo October 21, 2021

SpaceX Starship Economics Could Enable Making Life Multiplanetary, 'Full & Rapid Reusability Is The Holy Grail', says Elon Musk

SpaceX Founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk says “full & rapid reusability is the holy grail of orbital rocketry.” In order to make life multiplanetary and significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight, launch vehicles should be fully-reusable like cars and airplanes that need minimal work through their operational life with fuel being the primary cost. Full-reusability is the only viable way that spaceflight could become accessible for thousands of people to travel to space (long-term). Starship's economics will make it possible to have a "self-sustaining city on Mars,” Musk says.

The aerospace company’s operational Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets can only be around 80% reusable. The rocket’s first-stage booster and payload fairing halves can be reused if they don’t get damaged upon returning from space but the second-stage is expendable. Launch vehicles by other companies are completely expendable; some that can be somewhat reused cannot travel far distances and remain suborbital, like Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Russia’s Soyuz has the capability of lifting payload to orbit but is completely expendable, some of its components fall back to Earth in pieces.

SpaceX has developed the most advanced orbital-class rockets in history. To date, the company has recovered over 100 first-stage boosters by landing them at sea on autonomous droneship vessels and on land. SpaceX has landed 92 Falcon 9 boosters out of 103 missions. It has reused boosters around 68 times and reflown a couple of first-stage boosters 9 to 10 times, with some refurbishment between flights. Musk says that it is possible for Falcon 9 to be reused 100 times, however, the entire vehicle is not 100% reusable and can only transport less than 7 people to outer space and up to 50,000 pounds to low Earth orbit – which is not enough capability to enable the creation of a sustainable Mars colony, nor permanent lunar base. That is why SpaceX is working to develop a fully-reusable Starship launch system that will be capable of lifting approximately 220,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, and fit up to 100 passengers inside the spacecraft. Starship will also enable companies to deploy entire satellite constellations and even super large scientific instruments, like telescopes, to explore the Solar System.

Musk says the “holy grail” is a reusable Starship vehicle, that would launch more payload mass to orbit at a lower cost and be capable of multiple flights per day. “Our best-case scenario is $15 million [in cost] per launch. And Falcon is about half to a third the cost of alternatives. With Starship, it could be 1% percent the cost of an expendable system,” Musk said. “The marginal cost of launch we think could be under $1 million with 10 times the payload of Falcon 9,” he said at the 2021 Code Conference last month. At that margin, the fully reusable spacecraft’s main expense would be to fuel the launch vehicle. For perspective, a SpaceX Falcon 9 comes with a price tag of around $62 million per launch.

SpaceX is developing Starship at its Starbase facility in Boca Chica Beach, Cameron County, Texas. The gigantic launch system consists of a 230-foot-tall Super Heavy rocket booster equipped with up to 32 methane-fueled Raptor engines, capable of generating over 16 million pounds of thrust, that propels the 160-foot-tall Starship spacecraft to outer space. Musk envisions manufacturing a fleet of at least 1,000 Starships over the course of the next 20 years. “Megatons per year to orbit are needed for life to become multiplanetary,” he says. “Building 100 Starships per year gets to 1,000 in 10 years or 100 megatons per year, or maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync. Starship design goal is 3 flights per day average rate, so ~1000 flights per year at >100 tons per flight, so every 10 ships yield 1 megaton per year to orbit,” Musk explained in a series of Tweets last year. At this rate, humanity would be able to extend life to the Red Planet and have the first sustainable Martian settlement by the year 2050.

Featured Image Source: SpaceX

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