T-minus 6 Seconds: Starship (and Humanity’s) Next Major Step Into Space  

Image Source: Screenshot from SpaceX livefeed of April 20 Starship Launch

NASA liked to brag when its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket launched last fall that its 8.8 million pounds of thrust made it the most powerful rocket to ever take off. That record was broken on April 20 when at T-minus six seconds SpaceX’s Starship began firing its 33 Raptor engines to create a combined total of 17 million pounds of thrust. 

While both SLS and Starship are poised to participate in returning man (and, for the first time, women) to the Moon as part of the Artemis missions, that is where the similarity largely stops. The SLS is a single-launch rocket, primarily reliant on last-generation technology. In many ways, it has more in common with the Saturn V generation of rockets that first brought a man to the Moon in 1969 than Starship. Even the rocket engines the SLS uses are scavenged from the decades-old shuttle program. The SLS is also a massively expensive program, likely costing the taxpayer $93 billion by 2025 with each SLS rocket costing $2.2 billion.

SpaceX and Starship’s approach is diametrically different. Relying on an engineering approach imported from Silicon Valley that privileges “failing fast” SpaceX has rapidly developed what was once thought impossible: reusable rockets. That is why Starship’s maiden launch ultimately ending T+ 4:01 in a fireball after liftoff is not a major setback. With each Starship launch projected to initially cost $100 million, the same price as a Falcon Heavy launch today, SpaceX can financially afford to learn from failure, unlike NASA.

Since SpaceX began flying the Falcon 9 rocket in 2009, the cost of launch per pound has decreased from $10,000 per kilogram to roughly $2,500. Starship promises to lower the cost of launch even further. Today, the per kilogram cost of a Falcon 9 launch is $1520. Starship’s larger size would allow it to drop that down by 40% to $970 on day 1 (assuming the total cost of launch for both remains at $100 million). Since, like commercial airplanes, reusable rockets are most cost-effective to operate when flown frequently, the price could decrease even further once SpaceX establishes a high-volume launch cadence with Starship. Musk has predicted Starship launch prices as low as $10 million within 2-3 years. 

The scientific and business case achievement of reducing launch costs by even 40%, let alone orders of magnitude, will have massive follow-on effects across the military, commercial, and civilian space enterprises.

The reusable launch revolution is already benefiting the military space enterprise. Two weeks ago the Space Development Agency (SDA), a government agency charged with developing and deploying U.S. military satellites, launched Tranche 0 of its proliferated satellite architecture on a Falcon 9. This network of small satellites operating in low earth orbit (LEO) will increase the resiliency of U.S. space infrastructure against anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). SDA’s focus on speed––with an aggressive two-year contract-to-launch timeline–– is only possible because the collapse of launch costs has made networks of smaller cheaper satellites more economical than exquisite, massive, and expensive satellites that go up on a single launch.

Commercially, Starship will also enable the growth of commercial space activities from low earth orbit to cislunar space and beyond. Launched on Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of LEO communication satellites is already providing high-speed satellite internet and expanding coverage to remote and contested environments from the battlefields of Ukraine to the Arctic. Improved launch capacity also allows greater commercial exploration, exploitation, and development in cislunar space. Japanese company iSpace recently used a Falcon 9 rocket and low five-month-long low-energy trajectory to reach lunar orbit. The massive increase in commercially accessible lift capacity to the Moon and Mars––from 4,020 kilograms with Falcon 9 to 20 tons with Starship––will allow commercial companies to reach the Moon more quickly and bring more with them on each mission. 

Starship has a starring role in space exploration as part of the U.S.-led Artemis missions. While the SLS is currently slated to serve as the lift vehicle for all upcoming Artemis missions, Starship has already been selected by NASA to provide the Human Landing System. Should Starship prove itself as an effective, cheap, and reliable lift provider, it is possible that Starship might eventually either replace the SLS as the lift vehicle for Artemis, or that the number of Artemis missions might be expanded to leverage Starship.

Beyond cost reductions, Starship’s sheer capacity will massively increase the engineering envelope for space systems. Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that today’s present engineers “face strict limits of mass and volume, which boxes the physical footprint and capabilities of [space] instruments into a tight corner.” 

By having a massive payload size and lift capability, Starship will make the design and logistics problems for everything from orbital point-to-point military resupply, commercial space station replacements for the ISS, or telescopes, larger and more sensitive than even the James Webb made possible. 

In addition, since much of the cost and challenge for any engineering problem involves making a capability smaller and more exquisite, increasing the physical size constraints within which engineers must work will have significant second-order effects, making the development of space capabilities cheaper and faster. 

Elon Musk famously founded SpaceX to enable his dream of Martian settlement within his lifetime. With the Starship successfully clearing the pad on April 20, one small step (in astronomical terms) has been made by Starship, and a giant leap has begun for all mankind.

Once Starship reaches its full launch cadence, it promises to revolutionize space exploration, exploitation, and development for decades to come.

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