Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Focusing on the Non-Reusable Starship

I have one of those rare cases where I disagree with a professional's take on a space story enough that I think it simply shouldn't have been published as it is.  

The story is by Eric Ralph who heads the SpaceX writing for Teslarati, and the story is, “Elon Musk teases expendable version of SpaceX’s reusable Starship rocket.”  

The fact is, as Eric Ralph himself cites over and over, there will always be expendable versions of Starship so Musk wasn't teasing something unheard of.  Further, there has always been recognition of that fact because there will always be missions for which return to launch site (or even launch planet) isn't planned.  SpaceX’s multibillion dollar Human Landing System contract to use Starship to return NASA astronauts to the Moon features a tanker variant - a ship that will store propellant for refueling on-orbit that can't and won't return to Earth.  There are proposed missions to the outer planets where it would be waste of precious cargo capacity to include features for reuse on Earth.  

Three expendable variants of Starship anticipated for NASA's HLS. SpaceX image.

Even excluding missions like that, there will be several missions flown before reuse is even possible. That sort of operational reuse knowledge of Starship and the Super Heavy booster is going to be hard-won.  While we have every reason to expect that it will take fewer test flights to successfully recover Starships than it did to recover Falcon 9s, I think it wouldn't be unexpected at all to lose some test vehicles before recovery becomes routine, as it has for the workhorse F9.  As he notes:

Simply ensuring that Starship can reach orbit at all is a major challenge. Successfully recovering Starship and Super Heavy after the fact may be an even bigger challenge and cannot be fully demonstrated until the rocket can consistently reach orbit. SpaceX won’t be able to reuse Starship until it can consistently recover ships and boosters from orbital launches. And there’s no guarantee that early prototypes will be reusable even if they’re recovered.

Perhaps to hit that point with a bigger hammer: until full reusability is demonstrated, every Starship will be expendable no matter what anyone might want to call it.  

It therefore might not seem as controversial to point out that there have already been non-reusable Starships produced in Texas for various tests: 

Prototype Starships already built (note the date of 10-5-22).  Image from The Ring Watchers on Twitter.

Eric Ralph concludes with some mind-boggling numbers that reflect on just how much Starship changes everything, and here I'll just give him the floor. 

In early 2023, SpaceX updated the Starship section of its website, revealing that an expendable version of the rocket will be able to launch up to 250 metric tons (~550,000 lbs) to low Earth orbit in a single launch. Saturn V, the next most capable expendable rocket, could launch up to 118 tons (~260,000 lbs) to LEO and cost $1-2 billion per launch. SpaceX publicly advertising the expendable performance of Starship unsurprisingly confirms that the company is considering all of the capabilities its new launch system will offer.

And Starship’s expendable capabilities are significant. Constructed piece by piece over dozens of launches, the International Space Station weighs about 420 tons (~925,000 lbs). Two expendable Starships could launch more usable mass to LEO – truly revolutionary if SpaceX can make Starship launches frequent and routine.

Two expendable Starships could deliver more mass to orbit than the dozens of Shuttle flights it took to deliver all the pieces of the ISS to orbit.


  1. "Two expendable Starships could deliver more mass to orbit than the dozens of Shuttle flights it took to deliver all the pieces of the ISS to orbit."

    You'd best believe DoD is salivating and just about wetting their pants waiting for SpaceX to refine Starship and start sending some REAL cargo to orbit.
    "Rods from God", perhaps? That's just ONE of the many "uses" for a heavy-lift capability.
    Stay tuned!

  2. SiG, my computer is down and I cannot get into my e-mail.
    If this be spam, so be it.

    Here is an ad from a local (AZ) paper.

    Gary KNYH & G6NYH is hosting ham/CB rally each Saturday in February. Location is 11878 Hunter Ave Yuma, AZ
    Contact phone is listed as (928) 580-7033

  3. I don't think any of the writers at Teslarati can be considered professionals.

    1. I'm going by the definition that getting paid for something makes that person a professional.

    2. Every of my science or engineering professors, but only one math professor, advocated STEM majors to have a minor in English. The need has been obvious for a long time.

      The ability to explain complex subjects to the layman is commendable. Even more so when using the fewest words possible. Forty+ years later I still adore a math professor who was so understandable yet exacting and exuded great enthusiasm in his teachings.

  4. Musk has also talked about Starship-based space telescopes. And long-duration habitats based on Starship.

    While Expendable sounds expendable, what I've read from SpaceX is that functioning production models won't be disposable but non-Earth returnable. Launch a body into orbit, the body is still there. What to do? Well, start a ferry service between Lunar and Earth orbit. Or Mars. The body with engines and tanks is already up there, no need to drop it on Earth.

    If one is truly going to expend it, drop it on the Moon, or Mars. Or in an orbital reef for recycling.

    Lots of reasons for a one-way out-of-Earth's-gravitational-field. Once up there, no reason to throw it away.

    People tend to forget that Musk and all the other brains at SpaceX are crazy like foxes. They won't announce something unless they can get benefit from it.

    Will be interesting to see what will happen in the future. Like the 12m Starship on the 9m Booster, something Musk hinted at back last year.

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