With the news that SpaceX’s Starship is nearing readiness for another test launch, FAS CEO Dan Correa has been thinking more about what its technology could mean for national security, space science, and commercial space activities. Correa believes policymakers should be thinking and talking more about the implications of Starship and other competing space efforts as well. He recently sat down with Karan Kunjur and Neel Kunjur, founders of space technology startup K2 Space, to find out just how big of a leap the next generation of launch vehicles will represent.
Dan Correa, FAS CEO: Let’s start with reminding people exactly what SpaceX’s Starship is – and why it could be such a paradigm shifter.
Karan Kunjur, K2 Space Co-founder, CEO: Starship is a next generation launch vehicle and spacecraft being developed by SpaceX, and when operational will change the game in space exploration. It’s the largest and most powerful launch system to ever be developed (150+ tons of payload capacity to LEO) and is intended to be fully re-usable.
A single Starship launching at a cadence of three times per week will be capable of delivering more mass to orbit in a year than humanity has launched in all of history.
With Starship-class access to space, we’re about to move from an era of mass constraint, to an era of mass abundance. In this new era, what we put in space will look different. The historic trades that were made around mass vs. cost will be flipped on its head, and the optimal spacecraft required for science, commercial and national security missions will change.
DC: Can you be more specific about what types of economic sectors are likely to be affected by Starship and other similar next generation launch vehicles? In other words, is there a broader ecosystem of products and services that you think are likely to emerge to take advantage of Starship or similar capabilities from other companies?
Neel Kunjur, K2 Space Co-founder, CTO: Historically, almost every application in space has been constrained by something commonly known as ‘SWAP’ – Size, Weight and Power. Satellite bus manufacturers have been forced to use expensive, lightweight components that are specially designed for spacecraft that need to fit inside current rockets. Payload designers have been forced to pursue compact sensor designs and complicated, sometimes unreliable deployables. Brought together, these needs have resulted in lightweight, but necessarily expensive vehicles.
A perfect example of this is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In order to fit required mission capabilities within SWAP constraints, the designers of JWST had to 1) Develop a highly complex deployable segmented mirror to fit within the volume budget, 2) Use expensive and novel Beryllium mirrors to fit within the mass budget, and 3) Design low power instruments and thermal conditioning hardware to fit within the power budget. This kind of complexity dramatically increases the cost of missions.
KK: Exactly. In a world with Starship, things will become significantly simpler. Instead of a complex, unfolding, segmented mirror, you could use a large monolithic mirror. Instead of expensive Beryllium mirrors, you could use simpler and cheaper materials with lower stiffness-to-mass ratios, similar to those used in ground-based telescopes. Instead of expensive, power-optimized instruments, additional power could be used to make simpler and cheaper instruments with more robust thermal conditioning capabilities.
The potential for change exists across every type of mission in space. It will become possible to have a satellite bus platform that has more power, more payload volume and more payload mass – but one that comes in at the cost of a small satellite. In a world with launch vehicles like Starship, satellite-based communications providers will be able to use the increased power to have greater throughput, remote-sensing players will be able to use more volume to have larger apertures, and national security missions will no longer need to make the trade-off between single exquisite satellites and constellations of low capability small satellites.
DC: Can we get more specific about what we think the new costs would be? If I’m a taxpayer thinking about how my government financially supports space exploration and activity, that’s important. Or even if I’m a philanthropic supporter of space science – it matters. So what are some “back of the envelope” estimates of cost, schedule, and performance of Starship-enabled missions, relative to status quo approaches?
KK: Here’s an example: the MOSAIC (Mars Orbiters for Surface-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Connections) concept, identified as a priority in the National Academies’ 2022 Planetary Decadal Survey, was a 10-satellite constellation to understand the integrated Mars climate system from its shallow ice, up through Mars’ atmospheric layers, and out to the exosphere and space weather environment. The study envisioned deploying one large “mothership” satellite and nine smaller satellites in orbit around Mars using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket. Development of these spacecraft was expected to cost ~$1B (excluding recommended 50% reserves).
In a world with Starship, the same mission could cost $200M in spacecraft costs. With this next generation launch vehicle, you could launch 10 large satellites in a single Starship. Each satellite would be redesigned to optimize for Starship’s mass allowance (150 tons), allowing the use of cheaper, but heavier materials and components (e.g. aluminum instead of expensive isogrid & composite structure). Each satellite would have more capabilities from a power (20kW), payload mass and payload volume than the large “mothership” satellite envisioned in the original MOSAIC study.
DC: You’ve told me that standardization and modularization possibilities with Starship as it relates to satellites and scientific instruments is crucial. Can you elaborate on that idea?
NK: Longer term, having mass will allow us to do interesting things like over-spec the SWAP capabilities of the satellite bus to meet the requirements of various space science missions – thereby driving standardization. With sufficient SWAP, we could start to include a consistent bundle of instruments (rather than selecting a few to fit within limited SWAP budgets) – reducing the level of customization and non-recurring engineering (NRE) required for each mission.
Although there will always be some level of customization required for each individual scientific mission, the potential to standardize a large portion of the hardware will make it possible to mass produce probes, increasing the potential frequency of missions and reducing the potential cost per mission. Examples here include standardized build-to-print suites of spectrometers, cameras, and particle and field sensors.
DC: What are the implications for the Defense Department? What are some of the important opportunities to deliver capabilities to solve national security problems in less time, at a lower cost, and with greater resilience?
NK: In 2022, the Space Force made resilience its No. 1 priority. One of the ways it hoped to achieve resilience was through the use of cheaper, more quickly deployed satellites. Unfortunately, the only path historically to going cheaper and faster was by going smaller, thereby sacrificing capabilities (e.g. low cost satellites typically come in <2kW of array power).
With Starship, and companies like K2, agencies such as the Department of Defense will have access to larger, more capable satellites that are built cheaper, faster and with lower NRE. Instead of a single exquisite satellite with 20kW of power, the DoD will be able to deploy constellations of 40 satellites, each with 20kW of power, all within a single Starship. With the rise of refueling and next generation propulsion systems, these high power constellations will be deployable in higher orbits like Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO), providing a much needed alternative to a potentially crowded Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
DC: The NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) program used firm, fixed-price milestone payments to solve a problem (deliver and retrieve cargo and crew to the International Space Station) at a fraction of the cost of “business as usual” approaches. NASA also gave companies such as SpaceX greater autonomy with respect to how to solve this problem. What are some key lessons that policy-makers should learn from the NASA COTS program and similar efforts at the Space Development Agency?
KK: The NASA COTS program and SDA have demonstrated that policy can be as effective as technology in driving positive change in space. The move towards firm, fixed priced models incentivized reductions in cost/time, and pushed commercial entities to be thoughtful about what it would take to deliver against stated mission requirements. The autonomy that was given to the companies like SpaceX was critical to achieving the unprecedented results that were delivered.
Moving forward, other areas that could benefit from this approach include deep space communications infrastructure and space debris identification and remediation.
NK: Take the communications capabilities around Mars. The current infrastructure is aging and throughput limited – we just have a collection of Mars orbiters that are operating beyond their primary design lifetimes. With the ramp-up of ambitious scientific missions expected to be launched over the next decade (including eventual human exploration efforts), this aging infrastructure will be unable to keep up with a potentially exponential increase in data demands.
Rather than addressing this via conventional completed missions, where the end-to-end mission is prescribed, a new approach that uses mechanisms like data buys or Advance Market Commitments could fit well here. Assigning a price for throughput deployed on a $/Gbps basis – what the U.S. government would be willing to pay, but not actually prescribing how those capabilities are deployed – could result in a cheaper, faster and more effective solution. Companies could then raise capital against the potential market, build out the infrastructure and shoulder a majority of the risk, much like any other early stage venture.
DC: What new commercial capabilities might Starship unlock? Would any of these capabilities benefit from some government involvement or participation, in the same way that the NASA COTS program helped finance the development of the Falcon9?
KK: Almost every new commercial space customer has been forced to operate with sub-scale unit economics. Given capital constraints, their only option has been to buy a small satellite and compromise on the power, payload mass or payload volume they actually need. In a world with Starship, commercial players will be able to deploy capable constellations at a fraction of the cost. They’ll be able to multi-manifest in a single Starship, amortizing the cost of launch across their full constellation (instead of just 4-8 satellites). The mass allowance of Starship will make previously infeasible commercial businesses feasible, from large fuel depots, to orbital cargo stations, to massive power plants.
As we think about development across the solar system, as future deep space missions increase the demand for data, the lack of comms capabilities beyond the Deep Space Network (DSN) is going to play a limiting factor. A concerted effort to start building these capabilities to handle future data demand could be an interesting candidate for a COTS-like approach.
DC: For policy-makers and program managers who want to learn more about Starship and other similar capabilities, what should they read, and who should they be following?
KK: There are a number of great pieces on the potential of Starship, including:
- Starship will be the biggest rocket ever. Are space scientists ready to take advantage of it?
- Starship is still not understood
- Accelerating Astrophysics with SpaceX
DC: Great recommendations. Thanks to you both for chatting.
KK: Thank you.
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