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Elon Musk’s Starship could change the space business forever

, February 11, 2022, 0 Comments

The SpaceX founder has said his groundbreaking megarocket could be orbital within months. Some say Starship is the beginning of the end for space firms that fail to see its potential.

elon-musk-starship-marketexpress-inOn Thursday night at a launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, billionaire and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave an update on Starship, a powerful rocket that some say will transform the space industry in ways that many can’t yet imagine. And that lack of imagination could pose a problem for other industry players.

“I feel at this point highly confident that we will get to orbit this year,” Musk said, referring to the Starship model.

The rocket was on display at the Starbase test facility during Musk’s speech. Sitting atop its giant booster, called Super Heavy, Starship measures just short of 400 feet (120 meters) tall. This makes it taller than Saturn V, the 363-foot-tall NASA rocket used for the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s, currently the tallest operational rocket ever used. Starship is meant to be fully reusable and have the capacity to carry over 100 tons to Mars and the Moon.

“Fully reusable Starship and Super Heavy systems are expected to allow for space-based activities that have not been possible before,” SpaceX writes in the Starship user guide.

Starship would be a major step toward SpaceX’s goal of making life interplanetary. The rocket’s massive payload capacity along with the reusability factor could drastically change the economics of launching people and things into space.

Musk’s speech focused on Starship’s technical developments. He remained vague about what projects the company might be in store.

“There’s going to be some future announcements that I think people will be pretty fired up about,” he said. “There are a lot of additional customers that will want to use Starship. I don’t want to steal their thunder. They’re going to make their own announcements.”

Explosions and crashes

Already last year, the Starship project received a major endorsement after NASA offered SpaceX a $2.9 billion (€2.5 billion) contract to put its astronauts on the moon. This came after SpaceX became the first private corporation to shoot astronauts into space when in 2020 it ferried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on Falcon 9, the world’s first orbital-class, reusable rocket.

Thursday’s update was the first major news about Starship in over two years. The rocket had been slated to make its first-ever orbital test flight in January or February of this year, but was delayed by environmental assessment by the US Federal Aviation Administration along with some hardware problems. Musk said both issues will be solved soon.

“Hopefully, you know, basically a couple months for both,” he said.

This wasn’t the first time that the project has experienced delays.

“This is going to sound totally nuts but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” Musk had said at the last Starship update, in 2019.

He was half right: The goal was unrealistic. In the two years that have passed, Starship prototypes have fallen victim to fiery crashes and explosions, but orbital flight has remained out of reach. Adding insult to injury, a solar storm over the weekend destroyed dozens of satellites SpaceX had launched just last week, meant to form part of a massive internet communications network called Starlink.

An elevator to space

Musk has earned himself a reputation for setting out overly ambitious timelines, and this could explain why much of the space sector might not yet be expecting the reality of a functional Starship and everything it would bring with it.

“A fully functional Starship would so thoroughly render all legacy launch systems obsolete that it may as well be that they had never even existed,” Casey Handmer, physicist and founder of the carbon capture startup Terraform Industries, who blogs regularly about advances in space travel, told DW in an email.

Starship could “enable a conveyor belt logistical capacity to low Earth orbit,” Handmer writes in his blog. Those positioned to exploit this major shift in capacity will prosper, while all others will fade rapidly into obscurity, he said.

The finance guys seem to agree. “We think of reusable rockets as an elevator to low Earth orbit,” Morgan Stanley Equity Analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a note, reaching for another metaphor. “Just as further innovation in elevator construction was required before today’s skyscrapers could dot the skyline, so too will opportunities in space mature because of access and falling launch costs.”

Investors shoot for the moon

Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry could generate over $1 trillion in revenue by 2040, up from about $350 billion today. In the short and mid term, much of this is likely to come from satellite broadband internet access, part of the so-called space-to-Earth economy.

But consulting group McKinsey reported that investment in “lunar and beyond” projects has been increasing steadily. In a January note, the group said that such ventures were pulling in between 10% and 15% of all private investment in space-related companies, or about $1 billion. This is up from less than 5% a decade ago. A rocket like Starship would play a major role in this economic shift.

And, so far, there isn’t much out there like Starship and its SpaceX predecessors. In December, the company was awarded three more NASA flights as aerospace giant Boeing continued struggling to address issues with its own Starliner spacecraft. Both companies have signed contracts with the space agency to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.

European space company ArianeGroup is also trying to play catch-up. The planned Maïa launch system is scheduled to open to the satellite launch market in 2026 and will be designed to be reusable. In size, however, it will be dwarfed by Starship, launching just 1 metric ton in reusable mode to low Earth orbit against Starship’s planned 100. Notably, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called it “our Falcon 9,” comparing it to a SpaceX product that will have long become redundant by 2026 if Musk’s plans succeed.

“If you’re not careful, SpaceX will be the only game in town,” Fatih Ozmen, co-founder of Sierra Nevada Corp., a privately held American aerospace company, told the Financial Times in October.

This is big talk about a rocket that has yet to complete an orbital test flight. And if hiccups at Tesla, Musk’s electric and self-driving car company, have shown us anything, it’s that huge projects can take time. But Musk and his employees aren’t eager to wait.

“SpaceX has a team of skilled, motivated, capable engineers and technicians at Boca Chica who work 24 hours a day to create this future,” Handmer said. “They are well resourced and they are acting like they intend to prevail.”