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SpaceX is poised to make rocket launches 10 times cheaper with Starship, experts say

Marianne Guenot,Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

SpaceX is poised to make rocket launches 10 times cheaper with Starship, experts say
  • With its recent Starship mission, SpaceX is poised to cut launch costs 10-fold, said an expert
  • The firm flew its flagship mega-rocket to space without exploding on Thursday for the first time.

SpaceX's Starship launch on Thursday didn't only look cool. It may have marked a major turning point for the space industry.

Elon Musk's enormous mega-rocket, which didn't carry a payload or people, did not survive the landing on Thursday. But it did cruise through space and plummet back through Earth's atmosphere before exploding, a watershed moment for SpaceX, 22 years to the day after it was founded.

The rapid progress of the Starship-Super Heavy launch system's development offers high hopes the 400-foot-tall behemoth will be fully functional — and fully reusable — very soon.

The mega-rocket is key to Elon Musk's ambition to bring costs down to about $10 million per launch, a crucial move for those vying to set up their futuristic industries in space like asteroid mining, or space factories.

"With Starship, SpaceX is poised to slash launch costs by an order of magnitude again," Brendan Rosseau, a teaching fellow at Harvard Business School writing a book about the space industry, told Business Insider in an email on Thursday.

SpaceX has already shaved launch costs down

Starship-Super Heavy is the biggest launch system ever developed. The Super Heavy booster that hauls Starship up to space can produce twice as much thrust as the rockets that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon.

When fully developed, it should be able to launch as much as 150 metric tonnes to orbit.

That's a lot of cargo. By comparison, SpaceX's workhorse, Falcon 9, carries around 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit on each launch.

That offers substantial economies of scale, as more payload could go on each launch.

But it also helps firms put considerably less money into prepping their payload.

"For the history of spaceflight, the way you get your payload onto a rocket is you shrink it. And when you shrink it, you just spend a lot of money to shrink your technology," Abhi Tripathi, director of Mission Operations at the University of California Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, told BI Friday.

"Starship offers you the ability to reverse that equation. It offers you the ability to use cruder technology. Don't waste time shrinking and miniaturizing your thing, use something off the shelf," he said.

An enormous launcher you could use again and again

SpaceX isn't only betting on the rocket's enormous capacity to shave costs. Its main gamble is making the 400-foot tall mega-rocket fully reusable.

Think about how much a plane ride might cost if the airline had to build a new plane every time. That's how most of the launch industry handles rockets.

Reusability offers huge opportunities to cut the bill. And this isn't a stab in the dark — SpaceX has already proved the business model works with Falcon 9.

The midsize rocket's booster doesn't get discarded. Instead, after each launch, it lands to fly another day. With this technology, SpaceX was able to offer cheap and quick turnaround launches at around $67 million per flight.

That's about $1,500 per pound of payload. By comparison, the Space Shuttle charged about $25,000 per pound up to 2011.

Starship's promise is to fully reuse both stages, indefinitely.

This could change everything.

"They are demonstrating that they are right on track to get to where they want to be in an amazingly short period of time," George Nield, former associate administrator of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told BI.

"This vehicle is so different, and it's so much more capable than anything that anybody has ever tried to do. I think folks are not necessarily appreciating that," said Nield.

A way to go, but the end is near

With these advances, business plans for space industries — like manufacturing products at scale in the vacuum of space or mining rare minerals on asteroids — could gain more traction among backers.

"Those high costs significantly limited the scope of space activities, constraining who could use space, how they used space, and who could benefit," Harvard's Rosseau said.

"Lowering launch costs has always been the first step to unlocking broader, deeper sources of value from space," he said.

SpaceX is poised to plow ahead after Thursday's success. Still, there's work to do before industries can pop their payload on Starship at low cost.

As part of Musk's equation, SpaceX needs Starship and its booster to be fully reusable. This wasn't attempted on Wednesday, and booster and ship were lost on re-entry.

Tripathi predicts they are not too far off, however. He thinks SpaceX could try to deliver Starlink satellites on Starship's next test launch.

For reusability, "I think this test showed they probably have another test or two to go," he said.

"I think the smart people have already been planning as if Starship will be successful. Certainly, the ones that were on the fence may have started to come off the fence as of the test [on Thursday]," Tripathi said.

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