The success of the spacecraft launch brings Musk's vision of cheap space travel closer

The SpaceX spacecraft flew into space for the first time on March 14, 2024.
SpaceX

  • With its latest Starship mission, SpaceX is preparing to cut launch costs by 10 times, an expert said.
  • The company launched its huge, pioneering rocket into space without exploding on Thursday for the first time.
  • Reducing launch costs is crucial to opening up the industry.

SpaceX's Starship launch on Thursday wasn't just great. This may have been a major turning point in the space industry.

Elon Musk's massive rocket, which was not carrying payload or people, did not survive Thursday's landing. But it shot through space and tumbled back through Earth's atmosphere before exploding, a watershed moment for SpaceX, 22 years after its founding.

Rapid progress in development of the Starship-Super Heavy launch system offers high hopes that the 400-foot-tall giant will become fully operational — and fully reusable — very soon.

The massive rocket is key to Elon Musk's ambition to reduce costs to about $10 million per launch, a crucial step for those vying to establish their future industries in space such as asteroid mining, or space factories.

“With Starship, SpaceX is poised to cut launch costs again,” Brendan Russo, a teaching fellow at Harvard Business School who is writing a book about the space industry, told Business Insider in an email on Thursday.

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SpaceX has already cut launch costs

Starship-Super Heavy is the largest launch system ever developed. The super-heavy booster that carries the spacecraft into space can produce twice as much thrust as the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

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When fully developed, it should be able to launch up to 150 metric tons into orbit.

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

This provides significant economies of scale, as more payload can be transported in each launch.

But it also helps companies allocate much less money to prepare their payload.

“For the history of spaceflight, the way you put your payload on a rocket is to shrink it. And when you shrink it, you spend a lot of money to shrink your technology,” says Abhi Tripathi, the university's director of mission operations. From the California Space Science Laboratory, Berkeley, to PE Friday.

“A spacecraft gives you the ability to reverse that equation. It gives you the ability to use more primitive technology. Don't waste time shrinking and miniaturizing your thing, use something off-the-shelf,” he said.

The photo shows the Starship fully stacked on its launch pad. Elon Musk said on Wednesday that the rocket is “ready to launch” on its second fully integrated flight, pending regulatory approval.
SpaceX

A tremendous launcher that you can use over and over again

SpaceX isn't just betting on the rocket's massive potential to cut costs. Its main gamble is to make the massive 400-foot rocket fully reusable.

Think about how much a plane flight would cost if the airline had to build a new plane every time. This is how most of the launch industry handles rockets.

Reusability offers huge opportunities to reduce the bill. And this isn't a stab in the dark, SpaceX has already proven that the business model works with the Falcon 9.

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The medium-sized rocket booster is not eliminated. Instead, after each launch, it lands to fly another day. Using this technology, SpaceX has been able to offer cheap and fast launches at a cost of about $67 million per flight.

That's about $1,500 per pound of load. By comparison, the space shuttle It charges about $25,000 per pound as of 2011.

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

This could change everything.

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

“This car is so different, so much more capable than anything anyone has ever tried to do,” Nield said. “I think people don't necessarily appreciate that.”

The spacecraft abandons its booster and ascends into space, unobstructed, on March 14, 2024.
SpaceX via X

The road is long but the end is near

With these developments, business plans for space industries such as Manufacture of products on a large scale In the vacuum of space or extracting rare metals on asteroids – it could gain more interest among supporters.

“These high costs have dramatically limited the scope of space activities, restricting who can use space, how it can be used, and who can benefit,” Harvard's Russo said.

“Reducing launch costs has always been the first step to unlocking broader and deeper sources of value from space,” he said.

A screenshot from the spacecraft's return video shows extremely hot plasma pooling on the spacecraft's belly.
SpaceX via X

SpaceX is poised to move forward after Thursday's success. However, there is still a lot of work to be done before industries can load their payload onto spacecraft at low cost.

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As part of Musk's equation, SpaceX needs the spacecraft and its booster to be fully reusable. This was not attempted on Wednesday, and the support vehicle and ship were lost on return.

However, Tripathi expects it is not too far off. He believes SpaceX could try to deliver Starlink satellites at the next Starship test launch.

As for reusability, “I think this test showed that they probably have another test or two,” he said.

“I think the smart people were already planning as if the spacecraft was going to work. And certainly the people who were on the fence may have started to come off the fence as of the testing [on Thursday]said Tripathi.

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