What is the Deal With SpaceX’s Starship?

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Podcast Transcript

In 1967, the very first Saturn V rocket was launched. It was the largest rocket ever built. 

55 years later, it is still the largest rocket ever launched.

However, it might not hold that distinction for much longer. There is a new rocket in town and it might soon displace the Saturn V, and in the process, revolutionize space flight.

Learn more about Starship and how it might totally transform the entire space industry on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily

This episode is going to be a bit different. Instead of covering a topic from history or explaining some physical phenomenon, I wanted to do an explainer episode about a new technology that has incredible potential, but most people might not know it exists, or if they do, how it works. 

I should also note that this is going to primarily focus on a product from a single company. Space X didn’t sponsor this, and I’ve never even talked to anyone as Space X, but if Elon Musk is interested, I have an executive producer credit available over at Patreon. 

With that being said, ever since the space age began, there has been one massive problem. Getting into space is really expensive. 

The standard metric for determining the cost of space flight has been the price to put 1 kilogram into orbit. That figure has traditionally been somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000. 

Even on the low end, that is an enormous amount of money to send the equivalent of one liter of water into space.

That means any trip to space was a very big deal. The cost of putting a satellite into orbit, even a small one, could often cost over $100,000,000. 

Factor in the inherent risk in space flight and the insurance which is required, and you have something which is done highly infrequently and requires government involvement to cover the costs and risks. 

The reason why space flight is so expensive can be boiled down to one simple fact: rockets are disposable. 

This problem was recognized very early on. You would build this expensive piece of technology, fire it into space, and then you could never use it again.

Think how expensive it would be to fly if every time you flew you had to get a brand new airplane. 

In 1969, while in the middle of the Apollo program, NASA took the first step towards creating a reusable system to get to orbit. This was known as the Space Transportation System, which you probably know better as the space shuttle.
The goal of the space shuttle was to dramatically lower the cost of getting to orbit because most of the system would be reusable. 

As measured against this goal, the program was a dismal failure.
Not only was the cost not lower, but it actually ended up being much more expensive than just using regular rockets. 

The boosters on the space shuttle were recovered and reused in theory but almost had to be totally rebuilt every single launch. The main fuel tank couldn’t be reused. Most importantly, the main orbiter was so complex and expensive that the cost of inspecting everything between flights, especially after the Challenger disaster, became prohibitive. 

The cost per kilogram of getting to orbit with the Space Shuttle was $50,000, one of the prices in the history of space flight.

When I said before that it cost $10,000 to $100,000 to put a kilogram of something into orbit, there was one exception. It was the Saturn V, which was able to put a kilogram in orbit for an inflation-adjusted $5,500. 

The Saturn V managed to achieve that simply because it was so large. The problem was, every Saturn V launch would cost $1.2 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The holy grail of orbital transportation would be something called a single stage to orbit vehicle.

If you have ever seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that there is an airplane that just flies into orbit and back to Earth, just like a regular airplane flies from point A to point B. In pretty much every science fiction movie, there is some ship that can just fly into space directly. 

While that is the dream, we don’t really have anything right now which could come close to doing that. There are a host of engineering problems that need to be overcome to achieve that, including how you can travel that fast without a booster rocket, and how you would return to the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The next best thing would be a two-stage rocket, which could be resued. 
One of the big questions would be how do you recover the booster stage? The easy solution is to just let it fall into the ocean with a parachute and then recover it out of the water. 

While this can work, it is a pretty inelegant solution. Falling into the water can damage it, preventing it from being reused, seawater can be corrosive, and it just takes more time and money to turn the rocket around if you do it this way. 
The ideal solution would be a rocket stage that could do a vertical landing. 

Experiments had been done attempting this since the early 1960s, and this was ultimately what was used for the lunar lander during the Apollo missions. 

However, it proved very difficult to actually achieve on Earth. Landing a rocket isn’t like landing an aircraft. The slightest problem with thrust or maneuvering can cause it to crash. 

Most private rocket companies in the 21st century have been pursuing vertical landings. 

The company which managed to successfully solve the problem was SpaceX. Their Falcon 9 rockets have a reusable booster stage that can land back on a landing pad, or on a barge in the ocean. 

For several years, their Falcon 9 launches just had the booster stage land in the water, but in 2015, for the first time, they managed to have the booster land on a landing pad. 

Since then, they have had a 90% success rate in booster recovery, with one booster having been reused 11 times so far. 

The Falcon 9 has radically lowered the cost of getting to orbit by about a factor of four. It can now launch payloads at $2,600 per kilogram. 

A variant on the Falcon 9 called the Falcon Heavy uses two additional boosters, both of which can be recovered, and due to the increased scale, it can launch payloads into orbit for $1,500 a kilogram.

It is hard to stress just how much the Falcon rockets have disrupted the space industry. There is no government or private company which can come close to their price point. 

The thing is because they have developed a cheap system that can be turned around quickly, they now have more experience and data about rocket launches than anyone else in the world. They have literally had more orbital launches in the last 10 years than the rest of the world combined. 

However, as good as the Falcon line of rockets has been, it is far from perfect.

The lower stage is reusable, but the upper stage is not. 

To achieve the goal of a fully reusable rocket, Space X is currently working on the Starship. 

Starship not only would be the first fully reusable orbital delivery system in history, but it is also the largest. In addition to reusability, it would have the efficiencies of scale that the Saturn V and the Falcon Heavy demonstrated. 
The stated goal is to get the operation costs of a single launch down to $2 million dollars. Given its payload capacity, that would mean a cost to orbit on a fully full flight of just $30 per kilogram. 

That would mean that the cheapest orbital system would also be the largest. It would also mean a price reduction of approximately 1,000 fold over prices in the 1960s and the space shuttle. 

So how exactly is this going to work? 

The upper stage is shaped like a bullet with stubby wings. It would sit directly on top of the lower stage, which looks similar to the lower stage of a Falcon 9 but just much much larger. 

Together, both stages would be over 400 feet tall on the launch pad.

The lower stage, also known as the Super Heavy booster, would return to Earth and land vertically. The major difference between it and the Falcon 9 booster is that it would land at the exact same spot where it took off. 

That would drastically reduce the turnaround time for launching the next rocket.
The upper stage is the real innovation. It is also, confusingly, call just Starship. Originally designed to be made out of carbon fiber, this was changed a few years ago and it is now made out of stainless steel.  Stainless steel is heavier, but it is also cheaper and easier to manufacture. 

There have already been several tests of the upper stage, and they finally made a successful landing after launching it to a height of 12 kilometers.

When it reenters the atmosphere, it will come in at an angle to reduce velocity. A heat shield on one side will absorb most of the friction. Then just before it gets to the surface, it will quickly turn so it is fully vertical and land. 

There won’t be a single type of Starship. The plan is to make many different versions for different missions. 

For deploying satellites, you could have an unmanned version with large pod bay doors. 

Another version would be designed never to return to Earth and would be used for landing on the moon or Mars.

Another version could be used for people. The interior volume of a single Starship is greater than that of the International Space Station. A version could be made just for space tourism and could take over 100 people into orbit at once. 

Not only that but a Starship could be used to transport supplies and people from different points on Earth. You could just do less than a full orbital flight and go from Texas to Australia in under an hour. 

Underneath all this, and what is really taking up the most time and effort, is the development of the raptor engine. 

The raptor engine would be used on both the upper and lower stages of Starship. Using a single-engine design for everything is designed to lower costs. 

Unlike the Saturn V which had massive F-1 engines, the largest rocket engines ever created, Starship will just use more Raptor engines to achieve the same thing. 

The lower stage is currently expected to use 35 Raptor engines, 6 on the upper stage. 

The Raptor engine will be the first rocket engine to actually be put into production that will run on liquid methane. The reason for selecting methane rather than kerosene which most rockets use is that methane burns cleaner, allowing the engines to be reused without having to clean the soot out of it.  The design goal is for each raptor engine to have a life span of 1,000 uses. 

Instead of hand-making each engine, the way they are made now, the plan is to eventually make them in an assembly line, producing one or two per day. Likewise, upper stage Starships themselves would also be made this way. 
The question many people are asking is what will happen if this system works and gets up and running?

Access to space has been incredibly expensive ever since the start of the space age. When automobiles dramatically reduced the cost of personal transportation, it resulted in massive cultural changes. The same was true when the internet reduced the cost of transmitting the information. 

People are just beginning to think of what might be possible with cheap access to space. 

There is no reason why satellites need to be so expensive given the cost of electronics today. Experimental satellites have been built and flown made from off-the-shelf components. 

Planetary fly-by missions today cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. There is no reason why with off-the-shelf technology and cheap orbital access, a similar mission couldn’t be done by a consortium of major universities for a few million dollars. 

The reason I decided to do this episode is that sometime in the next few months after recording this, the first test flight of the Starship system may take place. 
If this works, and there is every indication that it will at this point, it will usher in a revolution in space that most people will not even be aware of. It will render everything else which came before it irreverent, just like bow and arrows were to firearms. 

There will still be a lot of crashes, experimenting, and tweaking which will need to be done to make the system work.

Nonetheless, pay attention to what happens over the next several years, as you might have a front-row seat to the greatest revolution in space travel in over 50 years.