Apr 18, 2023 - Science

SpaceX's Starship could transform the space industry

Illustration of a paper chain of rocket ships cut out of money.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If SpaceX's Starship program succeeds, it could revolutionize the space industry by dramatically lowering the cost of launching people and payloads to orbit and beyond.

Why it matters: SpaceX and other companies want to make space travel more akin to air travel, with launches every day.

  • But in order to make that future a reality, launch costs need to get cheaper. That's where Starship comes in.
  • SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said a Starship launch could eventually cost just $10 million or less. By comparison, the company's Falcon 9 costs about $62 million today and has far less carrying capacity than Starship.

Driving the news: SpaceX was planning its first launch of the Starship with its Super Heavy booster on Monday, but liftoff was scuttled after a technical issue popped up deep into the countdown.

  • Musk has said that the company will reset and try to launch again in the next few days.

The big picture: If Starship works and SpaceX builds up a fleet that can launch often and be reused, it could "potentially enable new businesses and even new markets," BryceTech's Carissa Christensen tells Axios.

  • That dramatic reduction in price could lead to viable business plans for companies that want to manufacture sensitive material in orbit like pharmaceuticals.
  • Starship could also be a major factor in making human spaceflight accessible to a wider range of people. Instead of only being available to the ultra-rich, the vehicle could open up spaceflight opportunities to more would-be customers, Christensen says, though those flights will likely remain inaccessible to most, at least in the near term.
  • The vehicle's huge carrying capacity to orbit could also allow constellations of satellites to be built far more quickly, saving time and money.

Between the lines: Starship could also open up new scientific opportunities.

  • Today, large telescopes — like the James Webb Space Telescope — need to be folded up to fit inside a rocket fairing and then deployed in space. But with Starship, that may not be necessary.
  • Instead, the rocket's huge carrying capacity might allow for new designs and capabilities for space telescopes.

Yes, but: No satellites today — with perhaps the exception of SpaceX's Starlink spacecraft — are designed to fly to space aboard Starship.

  • "So it's gonna take a while for space agencies and companies to figure out how [Starship's] capacity can be used," Christensen says.

What to watch: It's not yet clear how quickly SpaceX will be able to scale up its Starship operations, and in order to reduce prices, the company will need a large fleet of Starships flying at a rapid clip.

  • It typically takes years for rockets to achieve expected operations after their first test flights.
  • But SpaceX already has at least one customer for Starship: NASA. The U.S. space agency is relying on a modified version of the vehicle to act as a lunar lander that is expected to bring people to the surface of the Moon as soon as 2025.
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