What’s the future of ultra-long haul travel? For Elon Musk, commercial passenger flights on the Starship rocket could connect pretty much anywhere on earth in less than an hour. That presents all sorts of interesting options for connecting cultures and people across the globe.
If propellent cost can be competitive there is a scenario where it is economically compelling to do long distance cargo and people transport on Starship. I mean, nothing is faster than an ICBM.– Elon Musk
Connecting points on earth was just one of the use cases Musk described in a recent Starship update. But is it really feasible??
A massive rocket, and that’s just the beginning
Starship is, on its own, a 50 meter tall rocket. It sits atop the 69 meter tall Falcon Heavy. A booster can launch and return to its pad in about 6 minutes. It would be ready to fly again in about an hour if SpaceX hits its goals. The Starship would take a bit longer, with a 6-8 hour recycle time.
The entire setup is incredible to see and would be unparalleled as a launch vehicle. It also is almost certainly more than what is really needed for travels across earth.
Still, should it become operational, the concept involves just a couple minutes of rocket-powered thrust to get off the ground. The Heavy booster is expected to return to its launcher while the Starship will continue into orbit, circling the earth once or twice before a controlled deorbit descent to a landing pad at the destination.
The entire trip should take less than an hour, compared to the longest nonstop flights nearing 20 hours of travel time today.
Saving that much time would dramatically change what it means to travel on earth. But the logistics around making rocket-based travel a common occurrence are far from settled. And the pricing remains very, very unclear.
Where can it fly?
Unlike supersonic aircraft, a rocket cannot fly at subsonic speeds for the initial part of its journey before getting over water to really speed its trip. Which means a sonic boom is inevitable near the launch site.
Musk acknowledges that reality, and it means that Starship would be limited to operations in coastal areas. He envisions launch and landing facilities 20-30 miles away from the coast ensuring that disruption is kept to a minimum. He explicitly suggests that “to do it frequently, you probably have to be offshore.”
How will sites be built and maintained 20-30 miles out at sea? How will passengers, cargo, and supplies get to the launch sites? How will the company overcome ecological concerns to build these launch facilities and manage the multiple daily flights Musk envisions? None of those issues are yet addressed.
Also to be addressed: How will these rockets handle inclement weather? Launch conditions today are far less forgiving for rockets than commercial aircraft. Getting to the point of frequent and reliable commercial traffic on these rockets is far from a certainty.
Abort conditions present significant challenges for commercial travel, and especially so on a rocket. Musk remained vague about the on-board life support options for Starship, though suggested that SpaceX could scale up some of the systems it uses on the Crew Dragon launch vehicles for the initial flights.
But Starship is, relatively speaking, massive compared to Crew Dragon. It will need to carry dozens of passengers, not just a handful. Making that transition will require additional engineering. And adapting the systems to support a wide range of travelers rather than trained astronauts brings in another level of complexity.
The Starship also has its own rocket engines on board to help with deliver cargo to orbit. Musk suggests they would be the primary abort power should the Falcon Heavy rocket experience anomalies during a launch. Just how quickly the engines would deliver the necessary thrust to escape a catastrophic scenario is unclear. Current launches, however, show they do not react immediately, especially not from zero.
What will it cost??
Like many things, the engineering represents just a small part of the challenge. Making it affordable – by whatever metric that is measured – is far more significant a test.
When asked about the costs to deliver payloads to orbit, Musk suggested Heavy and Starship could operate “On a marginal cost basis, as low as a few million dollars per flight. Maybe as low as one million. These are crazy low rates for space.”
These rates are, indeed, massively cheaper than current orbital launch services. If demand actually materializes the Heavy/Starship combination could revolutionize orbital launch operations. But getting to these low cost per launch numbers depends on reaching a cadence of multiple flights per rocket per day.
Yes, a passenger or terrestrial cargo flight is likely to be much lower weight than the orbital numbers he teased. That should help reduce costs. But the fixed costs per launch are less flexible.
Musk stated a high confidence in being able to deliver 100 tons to a useful orbit in 2-3 years for less than $10 million, all in. That translates to fixed costs of several million per launch.
And that might just be enough to doom the idea of these rocket flights being a regular occurrence for passenger travel.
Assuming a version that could seat 100 travelers and a $3 million trip cost (both assumptions that favor the company), that’s still $30,000 per passenger to break even. At 50 passengers and $5 million per launch that number becomes $100,000 a pop. Some people pay more than that for a private jet flight across the globe today. But not many.
Edit: Musk has previously suggested 1,000 seats on board. That would certainly shift the economics, but finding that many people looking to shell out $3,000+ on a one-way trip might still be difficult, even if it is just a 45 minute trip. And it is unclear how that seating arrangement would work on board and still work within the scope of what Starship transport claims to promise.
It would, however, almost certainly result in a scenario where travelers will spend more time getting to the launch port, boarding, and then getting from the arrival port into town than they would spend getting between the two points on earth. That’s a crazy shift.
The time savings compared to commercial travel is huge. The value there cannot be underestimated. But the number of people in a position to regularly pay that premium for travel is tiny. Even at these “democratized” prices, the demand might be hard to deliver.
Plus, all of these numbers depend on propellent costs becoming competitive with jet fuel. Such a transformation is far from guaranteed.
Ecological costs, too
Beyond the financial costs lay significant environmental concerns. The irony of Musk suggesting it necessary to develop this massive launch capability – a system that will almost certainly deliver outsides emissions and hasten global warming – to help preserve humanity (and our pets; apparently a Noah’s Ark version of Starship is under consideration??) is hard to ignore.
Building solutions for extraplanetary life targeting thousands to millions of years in the future, when the sun flames out is hard to justify, knowing that whatever we develop today won’t really be useful then.
Musk also suggested repeatedly that because 75% of the fuel is liquid oxygen, the environmental impact is somehow lessened. No details were offered to help support that, however.
Which is not to say that space exploration and research is completely useless. But that value must be tempered against the costs and the likelihood of ever actually delivering on the promised ideas. Multiple Starship flights per day on these long routes seems fantastical based on the costs and the potential value.
Like many thing, it would certainly be a cool experience. But also probably not one I’ll get to have.
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