In the February 11, 2020 edition of “The Space Show,” Robert Zubrin shared what he learned in a visit to the “shipyard” at Boca Chica. He spent time talking with Musk and with SpaceX engineers, and there were a variety of key takeaways. Most important, Starship is expected to cost $5-20 million per unit, when mass produced. We hinted at that price point based on the September 2019 update; it’s vastly lower than the original estimates. Significantly, that number is based on Boca Chica literally being a shipyard—SpaceX intends to churn out these ships rapidly. Musk suggested two per week, although Zubrin was skeptical, opining they might start at one a month and reach one per week. Even at the rate of one per month, though, the numbers are significantly higher (and costs significantly lower) that what we’ve been planning. “Mass produced” includes lots of tankers and presumably lots of cash-producing suborbital passenger ships. But, as we pondered in the Day 20 update, it also suggests the probability of many vehicles on a one-way mission, with just enough returning to assure we can bring people back to Earth, for all the reasons outlined earlier. In February, Earth orbit by 2021 seemed possible to Zubrin, assuming no significant issues with Super Heavy development, not yet underway in any significant sense. Since then, a “high bay” structure suitable for stacking a Super Heavy has nearly completed at Boca Chica. SpaceX is now hinting at an early 2021 date for the first Super Heavy flight, even as the first 15 km hop is getting close.
In the Space Show interview, the item I personally found most interesting was a nugget from Zubrin suggesting SpaceX wasn’t yet seriously looking at the ISRU problem. A recent “What About It” episode on YouTube suggests SpaceX may be using its Florida location to work out some of the technology needed for propellant production. (Episode 120, linked below.) But, in the Space Show, Zubrin stated he had specifically asked whether Musk understood the size of the solar power fields necessary to power the ISRU plants. When Zubrin described it as multiple football fields (which we already established), Musk essentially shrugged and said, “Fine,” with an implicit, “Then we send shiploads of solar panels.” Exactly what we derived, but perhaps we aren’t reverse engineering what SpaceX has already figured out, after all. That’s exciting. In the conversation, Zubrin indicated the ISRU plant might be able to get by on 600 to 1,000 kilowatts. This is about one-third to one-half of the number we came up with, but we don’t have deep knowledge of how well his ISRU design scales. Regardless, that’s a good crosscheck that our numbers aren’t wildly off.
Zubrin also suggested that the first crew might be on the order of 20 to 50. Although it wasn’t clear whether that was his own number or Musk’s, the same figure has since been quoted by others. As outlined earlier, that seems high.
Where does this leave us?
Regardless of how many hulls it takes, eventually, a bare-bones vehicle will make it to orbit and return. Once that occurs, SpaceX will have a choice: work on a heavy lift option, delivering cargo to Earth orbit; or work on life support, which could support the #DearMoon mission and support suborbital, revenue-producing flights. SpaceX might take both tracks. Time will tell, but there are implications for each.
Although the suborbital option lets us perfect life support and high-rate landings, passenger-rating is orders of magnitude beyond human-rating. Musk has stated as much, suggesting “hundreds” of unmanned flights before the first humans fly on a Starship. On the other hand, demonstrating Starship as a heavy-lift vehicle might finally get the community to adapt its future plans to the reality of Starship’s existence. For that reason alone, a cargo-to-LEO version is much more compelling. Every launch requires a landing, but every launch has the option of orbital refilling, whether to reach a higher orbit for payload delivery or simply for practice after delivering a primary payload. SpaceX made this clear in its March release of a “Starship User Guide,” available on its website, https://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/starship_users_guide_v1.pdf
The animations have suggested it; let’s go there. If you haven’t seen the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” it’s mandatory viewing for Starship aficionados. The giant clamshell door of a cargo Starship practically begs for a remake of the film’s opening sequence. The possibilities here should scare the daylights out of every competitor—as the user guide points out, they include not just multiple satellites, but huge observatories, orbital cleanup, or simply transferring operational satellites to new orbits.
In his Space Show interview, Zubrin pointed out that landing a Starship on the moon was likely impractical, because the size of the vehicle means the Raptor engines will dig a crater so large the ship itself will tip over. He went on to discuss the need for a purpose-built, smaller lunar lander, at least until landing pads could be built. Not mentioned in the Space Show, but brought up a couple months later in an interview with "What About It,", is that every proposed component from every reference architecture could delivered by a cargo Starship. (Part 1 of the interview linked below.) Need a LEM in lunar orbit? Send it in a cargo Starship. Need the Lunar Orbital Gateway Tollbooth that Zubrin hates? Forget every other launch vehicle. If Lockheed Martin can put the thing together, send it safely cocooned inside a reusable cargo Starship. ULA won’t like that, but see “reality,” above. NASA seems to be warming to SpaceX’s capabilities, announcing that SpaceX’s “Dragon XL” will deliver cargo to the Lunar Orbital Gateway and selecting SpaceX as a contender for delivering lunar cargo. Since that interview, the concerns about Raptor engines having been apparently solved with large landing thrusters halfway up the rocket. NASA also selected SpaceX as one of three organizations to begin development work on lunar cargo delivery. SpaceX has made clear the plan for those lunar freighters is a one-way mission from Earth, so there’s a lot of architecture that needs a ride.
Need a fuel depot for your LEM? Okay, let’s make the Lunar Orbital Gateway an actual fuel depot, but don’t send the fuel from the parched lunar surface; send it using reusable tankers from a place where water covers 70% of the planet’s surface. If you’re making your own propellant using wind (and solar?) power at the launch site, the economics really start to change.
Worried about space debris from your defunct satellite? Send a Starship to go collect it. (Shotwell recently suggested as much.) Of course, you’re probably not going to launch a Starship just to bring back junk, but the transportation industry is very familiar with the concept of “backhaul.” You make your money delivering freight, but then you need to get your container/freight car/semi-trailer back to the starting point. Any load on the return trip is better than none, even if the return trip still doesn’t break even. Alternatively, maybe you don’t bring those satellite back and instead make the mission dedicated to cleanup—with a 100 ton payload and refillable propellant, how many tethers could you take to orbit for deorbiting defunct satellites?
Your hundred million dollar satellite malfunctioned after launch? Let’s go get it. It needs refueling, or new solar panels? Can we pencil you in for an appointment next week?
For all practical purposes, the limitations on mass to orbit simply vanish. At $5-20M per launch (and Musk now hinting at $2M), with 100 tons to orbit per launch, the problem isn’t how to afford it. The problem is how to get your idea from drawing board to flight-ready as fast as possible, and no worrying about shaving a few kilograms.
For planetary exploration, we’re in a similar boat. Stop worrying about landing a lightweight rover on Mars, or a lightweight science instrument. Instead of Mars Insight’s tiny little mole, we’re talking about an industrial-grade drillship. We could send half a dozen freighters to half a dozen potential landing sites, fully aware that five of them will be abandoned in place when that site isn’t selected. We could also finally send that subsurface radar imager Zubrin described in “Drilling Operations” by aerobraking into Mars orbit. And if we’re not yet ready to send astronauts in the early Earth-Mars launch windows, how about aerobraking into Mars orbit and doing a close recon of Phobos? For that matter, why not just deliver a dedicated Phobos lander?
In Day 20, we concluded it was too soon to rework the whole architecture. At this point, we can see enough to posit that our six-ship cycling architecture probably doesn’t need to be that literal. We will still need the capability to bring crew and cargo back to Earth, but it’s starting to look as if any cargo we might need is simply a matter of ordering up another MFR. The Martian Colonist Youtube channel analyzed Musk’s public discussions and reports the plan is two freighters in the initial launch window, followed by three freighters and two MCCS in the second, with that same combination in the third. Pretty close to what we’ve already derived, give or take a ship.
Every additional ship can bring another hundred tons of cargo at a cost of, say, $10M. That’s $100 per kilogram. For comparison, this is about the same cost per kilogram to build an aircraft carrier. Expensive? Sure. But not so expensive that a major nation state can’t build a ship that displaces 100,000 tons. Correction: for a superpower, a dozen such ships. We aren’t talking about an aircraft carrier, though, which is good—those cost $10 billion. But we’re also not talking about the Kon Tiki. We’re talking about the Mayflower.
In comparison, the original Interplanetary Transport System advanced spaceflight like Shuttle compared to Apollo—impressive, but still vastly expensive. This new design is the Maersk Viking compared to the NS Savannah; literally an economic game-changer.
This realization brings us to an important shift. Up until now, we’ve been broadly discussing all the things SpaceX is going to do. We’ve informed this discussion with the things SpaceX has said in public, and made a variety of—hopefully reasonable—assumptions describing a likely overall architecture. But, as we said earlier, that’s all stage setting. Next, we need to move to what we’re going to do.
We have a basic timeline, a general list of resources, overall sizing, and a personnel flow. We have precursor ships on the surface, and now realize we can probably assume any reasonable cargo we might need. We also have a set of assumptions about things that must occur, and which tasks have priority claim on cargo space (mass and volume) and human labor once it arrives. Change any of this, and what unfolds after necessarily changes, too. Overall, though, we have a workable mission architecture to start from.
SpaceX has put us on Mars. Now, we have to live there.