Tag: spacex

Mars Propellant Production for Starship

Making Rocket Fuel on Mars

When humans get to Mars, Elon said the first order of business is propellant production. This means producing liquid methane and oxygen, Starship’s fuel, using only the resources and raw material gathered on Mars.

Why produce propellant on Mars?

The ability to produce rocket fuel without importing it from Earth is critical if humans want to successfully build a self sustaining base on Mars:

  • To ensure humans have consistent fuel supply on the red planet for return missions.
  • To reduce weight by minimizing the amount of fuel carried onboard Starship. Carrying less, we reduce launch mass and enable more efficient flights.

“In-situ propellant-production is critical to the space architecture needed for a long-term human presence on Mars, future interplanetary transport, and eventually, multi-planet colonization.”

– NASA

How does rocket propellant work?

Rocket propellant needed to launch rockets from the surface of a planet into orbit and beyond. Starship uses chemical fuel like methane and oxygen, in contrast to satellites and deep space probes which use electrical propulsion such as ion thrusters.

There are a few different types of chemical based rocket fuel, but they all have a few things in common.

Rocket fuel works similarly to the way gasoline in a car works, via combustion. For any combustion reaction, you need two things: a fuel source, and an oxidizer. The oxidizer accepts electrons. Because oxygen has 6 electrons in its outer shell, it accepts 2 electrons to create 8, a full outer valence shell.

For a combustion reaction, you really just need oxygen and a fuel source. The fuel could be liquid, like gasoline, or solid, like gunpowder. Rocket fuel is complicated – over the years, chemical engineers have tried different combinations of fuels and oxidizers to try to find the optimal rocket propellant:

  • Liquid Hydrogen, for example, is the most efficient. The problem with hydrogen fuel for Mars missions is that it has a boiling point of -423 degrees F, which presents a challenge keeping it in liquid state during long trips and during the friction-intensive high temperature entry burns.
  • RP-1 is another type of rocket fuel similar to kerosene, but is not suitable for SpaceX’s goal of having rapidly reusable rockets because it leaves a large amount of soot residue after use, which requires extensive effort to clean.
Chemical structure of methane. source: science.org.au

There are a few differences between gasoline and rocket fuel: In the case of an automobile, oxygen is readily available in the environment to be used as an oxidizer. In a rocket travelling through outer space, the oxidizer must be carried along with the fuel in a separate tank. Space travel means moving through a vacuum, where you don’t have the luxury of an endless supply oxidizer in the surrounding space.

To get to and from Mars, methane and liquid oxygen will be used. Although Mars doesn’t have an abundance of liquid Methane like Saturn’s moon Titan, the good news is that methane can be readily made on Mars from material that is available in the ground and atmosphere.

Key Requirements for Mars Fuel

It will be in our best interest to implement the following items into the propellant production process:

  • Minimize electrical power needs because all electric power will need to come from batteries, solar power, or nuclear power. There is no way of knowing whether or not Mars will have fossil fuels beneath the surface, and we cannot rely on this.
  • The propellant production process will be heavily dependent on chemical engineering and the ability to complete multiple chemical reactions and separations sequentially. In addition to the desired products of Hydrogen and Methane, the process will produce by-products, many of which are useable for other endeavors on Mars.
    • Nitrogen is one byproduct that is specifically useful because it is inert and non-reactive. The gas can be used used for flushing of tanks and lines through which other gases pass since it is reactive neutral.
    • Oxygen and water byproducts are both potentially valuable feedstock for making propellant oxidizer or for life support/drinking. For this reason, Mars engineers will need to consider options, means, and costs in any facility design with business analysts to determine the costs to market value of any manufacturing byproducts.

Efficiency: one metric ton of propellant per 17 megawatt-hours energy input. Starship needs 240 tons of fuel – which will require 4.1 gigawatt hours of energy input.

How long does propellant production take?

How much time does it take to make enough fuel for launching Starship.

This brings us to outlining the process of creating fuel. There are 4 key steps.

Chemical Reactions to make Methane Rocket Fuel:

Pre-Requisites to fuel creation:

Gathering CO2

Carbon dioxide is highly available in Mars’ atmosphere, 20 times as much as on Earth. We would likely use a type of air pump to gather the CO2.

Separation and removing contaminants

To obtain pure CO2, dust filtration will be important in this step of the process as well as removing the small amounts of ambient gasses including nitrogen, argon, neon, and krypton. Carbon molecular sieves (CMS) will be used to separate the carbon dioxide from the nitrogen, and a Vortex Swirl particle separator will use used as well.

As the reaction proceeds and produces methane and water, a separator will be used to remove the water vapor, leaving pure methane. This will be done by simply allowing the products to cool, so that water goes through the process of condensation then stored in tanks.

An important consideration is: How do we make sure no contaminant gasses are present with additional harmful byproducts?

The diagram below shows the reactions that will be required for producing propellant on Mars.

spaceX mars propellant production
source: SpaceX

The reactions get complicated, and while I started covering them below, I found this super helpful video on YouTube that covers the chemical reactions as well as a lot of other information about making rocket fuel on Mars.

1. Electrolysis of Water

Hydrogen is the critical component that is hard to get, which we must separate from water. We need to pump water from underground wells, use robotic vehicles to mine raw water ore.

– Robotic vehicles, such as the NASA KSC Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR) prototype or the OffWorld Inc.5 smart robots, are likely candidates for mining the raw “water ore”.

Then, the water will go through electrolysis to break water into components Oxygen and Hydrogen.

Once this is done, we can use the hydrogen and CO2 from the atmosphere to run the Sabatier methanation reaction.

Note, we will have to do the electrolysis of water twice throughout.

2. Sabatier Reaction: Carbon Dioxide and Hydrogen to create Methane gas and Water.

The Sabatier methanation reaction has been recommended by many of the top researchers as the most likely basis for an ISRU propellant production processing plant on Mars.

This reaction leverages the abundance of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere to create both the methane fuel and water. CO2 is taken from the atmosphere by either freezing the gas into a solid, mechanical compression, and absorption pumping. Freezing will purify the gas, and may be advantageous.

Nickel or aluminum oxide transition metal catalyst is required (why?)

The reaction has to be carried out at high temperatures (why doesn’t it happen at low temp?) There is a principle in chemistry that describes the effect of temperature on reaction speed.
“Higher temperatures mean faster reaction rates; as molecules move about more quickly, reactant molecules are more likely to interact, forming products…” – sciencing.com
Since mars is cold, the reaction has to take place in an insulated container. The good news is that the reaction is exothermic, so once it starts, there isn’t much energy required to keep it going at temperature.

This is used today on the international space station to form water for astronauts to use.

3. Carbon Dioxide solid oxide electrolysis to create Oxygen and CO byproduct.

4. RWGS (reverse water gas shift)

A way to supplement producing methane and oxygen from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Sources:

Recap of Starship SN10 Launch and Landing

Starship SN10 (the rocket that will take humans to Mars) performed a historic launch, test flight, and landing on March 3rd, 2020 in Boca Chica, Texas.

Averaging 1 test flight per month (3 flights have happened since December 9, 2020), SpaceX plans to one day have regularly occurring Starship flights carrying payloads including smallsats, Starlink satellites, and eventually humans.

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The high altitude flight test began much like previous Starship flights of SN8 as well as SN9, with much anticipation, a few delays, and thankfully a successful take off.

Early in the day SN10 had a launch attempt, but the computer stopped the countdown just before lift-off because the thrust of a raptor engine slightly exceeded the allowable limit.

The team did a few evaluations, and later decided that the engines were good to go, ready for a second attempt.

Close-up view of Starship exhaust. source: SpaceX

Launch delays have occurred quite often leading up to the previous launches of both Starship prototypes as well as Falcon 9 Starlink missions.

Purpose of Starship SN10 test flight:

The goal of the SN10 test flight is to launch and fly to an altitude of 10 km while gathering data on how well the flaps function to control the vehicle while it is horizontal.

According to SpaceX’s website:

“A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth. This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”

The rockets SpaceX is using for these test flights are not built to carry humans (yet) – they are very much prototypes built to be used as test vehicles.

During flight, SN10 engines shut down sequentially. The purpose of the engine shutdown is to reduce thrust, slow the rocket down, so that it doesn’t go higher and about 10 km as planned. Starship was not planning to enter orbit or reach higher altitudes.

Three raptor engines were intentionally shut off one by one and Starship was at one point accelerating vertically on just one engine.

As it reached apogee, peaking at around 10 km altitude, Starship hovered in equilibrium, where the engine thrust force was equal to the force of gravity.

Apogee is the point at which an object (such as a moon, satellite, or in this case, Starship) is furthest from Earth.

Finally, the last raptor engine shut off, and Starship began its free-fall descent. Controlled by the flaps, Starship rocket maintained aerodynamic control with a high degree of finesse.

The rocket continued falling, rotating into the famous “belly flop”.

SN10 belly flop. source: SpaceX

Starship continued to fall in its belly flop, reaching terminal velocity. Eventually the engines re-lit to make the entire vehicle to rotate vertically in preparation for landing.

From the viewer’s perspective, the rocket appeared to be somewhat slanted from vertical as it landed moved towards the landing pad.

Space enthusiasts across the globe held their breath in anticipation, watching live streams as Starship inched closer to the landing pad.

Creating a huge cloud of dust, Starship SN10 has history, successfully landing. There was no explosion on landing, as happened with both SN8 and SN9.

source: SpaceX

Starship gleamed in the south Texas sun on the landing pad, while the rocket’s reflective steel shell illuminated, signifying a job well done. Congrats, SpaceX team!

Post-flight ends with a big bang

Although the rocket did land successfully, SN10 would not have fit in with both SN9 and SN8 if it didn’t ultimately end with a rapid unplanned disassembly. As viewed from the streaming cameras of Everyday Astronaut and others, a few minutes after landing, SN10 exploded.

While Starship is of course still not passenger ready, viewers get to enjoy the excitement of a massive explosion that resembles something out of a Hollywood movie.

It is unclear what caused the explosion, but according to Toby Li’s tweet here, SN10’s landing legs may have been damaged.

Regardless, the high-altitude flight test of SN10 was a massive success.

The SpaceX YouTube channel provides footage and commentary from the SpaceX team. The commentator mentioned that the next test flight would be held with Starship SN11.

SpaceX was able to record a few segments of amazingly high-definition video. The ultra up close take-off and landing clips appear to have been taken via drone and are quite spectacular. Worth a watch below:

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How To Get Hired At SpaceX

What does it take to get a job at SpaceX?

SpaceX’s prime objective is to build a self sustaining colony on Mars.

Achieving a mission of this level of impact requires the company to hire the brightest minds in the world. If you have what it takes and believe in the mission, you should try to work there. What SpaceX is trying to do is not easy – the team needs all the help they can get.

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As of 2021, SpaceX wants to hire engineers, supervisors, and technicians for its Starship project.

The company’s career website mentions that it is looking for world-class talent ready to tackle challenging projects that will ultimately enable life on other planets.

The company of course mentions that they are an equal opportunity employer offering competitive salaries, comprehensive health benefits and equity packages.

“We hire great engineers as fast as we can find them” – Elon Musk.

They are also looking for hardware, software and firmware engineers. Firmware engineers are needed specifically for the Starlink project, which will be one of SpaceX’s first revenue streams to help fund missions to Mars.

Firmware is software (often written in C) that is stored on hardware device to make it run properly.

SpaceX Hiring Strategy:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all, or even high school” – Elon Musk

No Degree Required

You don’t need a college degree to work for SpaceX. CEO Elon Musk has both tweeted about this as well as mentioned it in multiple interviews.

When the founder of SpaceX was starting the company, he had no experience building rockets. Elon came from a background in the software industry. He reportedly cold-called rocket scientists to learn about building and launching rockets, and even apparently tried to buy a ballistic missile from Russia to use as a first test.

Elon mentioned that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, all did not graduate from college. However, if you had the opportunity to hire any of them, it would be a great idea.

Americans and Internationals:

SpaceX is legally prevented from hiring people from outside the US. According to the US Government, working on Rocket Technology in the United States requires employees to be a US Citizen or green-card holder.

How Does Elon Describe Hiring at SpaceX?

In an online video, when asked about what skills he wants people to have, CEO Elon says he is looking for evidence of exceptional ability.

He asks candidates share the story of their career. He specifically wants to know about challenging problems the candidate has dealt with and how they make decisions. Elon stated that he wants to know if the person was truly responsible for the accomplishment or if someone else was – he can ask for details and the one that was will have those details.

The SpaceX hiring team looks for at track record of exceptional achievement. In order to actually get to Mars, the company needs to hire people that have “some evidence of exceptional ability that includes innovation”. Since the company is creating new technology, they expect their employees to have a deep drive to do so too.

TechCrunch has called SpaceX “one of the world’s most demanding engineering companies.” As you can imagine, the hiring process at SpaceX is unsurprisingly grueling.

By hiring only the greatest minds, SpaceX’s strict approach to hiring let’s the company focus on that which truly matters: solving big problems.

Next steps for job seekers

I follow the company on LinkedIn and they publish new jobs all the time. The company is in fact rapidly hiring, albeit incredibly selective, and will be for many years (going to Mars is no small task).

Wanna give the SpaceX application process a shot? They have job openings on their website, or hit the company up on Twitter and maybe you’ll get lucky.

Recap of Starship SN9 Flight Test

SN9 Starship Test Flight

SN9 test flight of Starship was delayed a few times, but fortunately it finally launched last week.

Spoiler – the flight ended much the same way that SN8 did – with a big, fiery explosion.

On 2/2/21, according to Twitter, Starship launch area was being cleared of vehicles. Launch anticipated for today and it happened! Starship SN9 launched.

On 1/26/21, Elon confirmed on Twitter that the FAA has reviewing the prospective test flight.

Starship launchpad update: on 1/19/21, SpaceX purchased two floating oil rigs which will become floating launchpads for Starship. The two launchpads have been called Deimos and Phobos, named after the two moons of Mars.

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SN9 UPDATE 1/14/21: Starship SN9 performed three static fire tests.

What is a “Static Fire”?
– A static fire is a planned system test that launch vehicles and ground support equipment undergo to verify that the rocket is ready for flight.
– During a static fire, the rocket’s engines briefly perform a test fire while staying bolted to the ground.
– The goal of a static fire test is to identify problems during the test, before the actual launch.

SN9 performed another static fire on January 6, 2020. A successful landing of SN9 would be a major milestone.

Delays of scheduled flights are common due to weather as well as the FAA regulations

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Recap of Starship SN8 Test Flight

Starship – the grand vessel that will take humans to Mars – performs its historic 12.5 km launch.

Starship SN8 Test Flight Recap

spacex starship hop 1
source: NASAspaceflight

On December 9th, 2020, people gathered on the beaches, parking lots and balconies in the surrounding areas of South Padre Island in Boca Chica, Texas. Space enthusiasts had flown in, YouTubers had their streaming cameras live and ready, and millions more tuned in remotely in anticipation of SpaceX Starship’s 12.5 km unmanned “hop”.

All day, people waited. Hours pass, with not much action. The first sign of advancement was the formation of a small condensation ring on the body of the spacecraft, just above the fins. This happens during fueling, caused by the overflow of liquid oxygen from the condenser as it fills the tanks. The rapid expansion of pressurized gas (in this case, liquified oxygen) is an endothermic process in which the gas loses heat energy, making the surroundings extremely cold.

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Liquid oxygen is an important component of the fuel, serving as the oxidizer. Starship uses liquid oxygen (aka LOX), and Methane (CH4) as rocket fuel.

Key Events from Starship Hop:

  • Successful ascent
  • Successful switchover to header tanks
  • Successful pivot
  • Flap control
  • Longest in-flight firing of a raptor engine
  • In control until the end
  • On target
  • Sufficient data gathered

Starship Launch

As the engines fire, there is no turning back. All or nothing, skyward.

spacex starship hop 2
source: nasaspaceflight.com

As the rocket takes off, as clouds instantly balloon to twenty times their size. As they grow larger, and seem to resemble exhaust smoke, the clouds are actually just steam, H2O water vapor. This is the main byproduct of the combustion reaction.

The other byproduct of the combustion reaction between methane and liquid oxygen is carbon dioxide, which is invisible.

spacex starship hop 3
source: Nasaspaceflight

Surprisingly, shortly after launch, one of the Raptor engines goes out, leaving the rocket with 2 engines to finish the remainder of the test flight.

From the multiple YouTube live-steams, including EverydayAstronaut, NasaSpaceflight.com, SpaceX, and more, there was some confusion among viewers.

spacex starship hop 4
source: SpaceX

It is unclear whether or not this was a planned outage or not, as Starship has three engines, and the other two can function completely fine on their own. Being down to two engines did not appear to interrupt the flight, and there is a chance this was done purposefully in order to control fuel loads.

As Starship progressed further towards the peak of its flight, another raptor engine apparently shut off, which is also believed to have been intentional. At this point, the rocket began to progress skyward on just a single engine. Moving at a slight angle it performing a couple of hover maneuvers, barely in view of the cameras.

At this point, the flight was over 4.5 minutes in total, 10:16:04 on nasaspaceflight video, and the rockets had been firing the entire time.

spacex starship hop 5
source: Nasaspaceflight

The Belly Flop

The next occurrence was the “belly flop”, a stunt where Starship will orient itself 90 degrees sideways, falling horizontal to the Earth’s surface at terminal velocity.

spacex starship hop 6
source: nasaspaceflight 10:16:23

The photos above and below were taken just 7 seconds apart, during which time the rocket appears to have repositioned itself by over 45 degrees. We can tell that Starship has quickly begun its free-fall because none of the engines are firing at this point.

spacex starship hop 7
source: Nasaspaceflight 10:16:30

As Starship continues to fall, it surprisingly further orients itself towards the Earth, nose down. Watching the video live, the nosedive appeared slightly nerve wracking, but it was in fact planned and supposed to happen, thankfully.

spacex starship hop 8
source: Nasaspaceflight 10:16:40

The wing-like flaps of the rocket, two on the front and two on the back, angle themselves skyward to apply air resistance drag to control the direction of its free-fall.

spacex starship hop 9
source: SpaceX

As Starship nears the Earth’s surface, the flaps are doing their job. Starship appears to float almost effortlessly towards Earth’s surface, during which time we getting the sense that terminal velocity doesn’t actually seem that fast when we’re watching such a massive vehicle.

spacex starship hop 10
source: SpaceX

When its time for the cigar-shaped rocket to begin preparing for the landing, two of its raptor engines re-engage, swiveling at an angle to control the degree to which it will turn. Within half a second, the ship has rotated ninety degrees, now facing vertically. Starship then re-orients itself vertically again for the landing.

The Rocket’s Downfall

spacex starship hop 11
source: SpaceX

In the moments leading up to landing something strange starts to happen as Starship gets closer to the landing pad.

The flame turns green, as if this is a prelude to some gnarly fireworks display. It is unclear what causes the color change.

Looking closely, the human eye can observe a slight angle between Starship and the landing pad, which is a sign that something is not quite right.

It was at this moment that we all knew destruction would be inevitable.

In the photo to the right, we know something is wrong for two reasons:

  1. Skewed angle of Starship
  2. There are no landing leg folding out

As soon as Starship hits the ground, it immediately explodes, disintegrating, leaving almost no remains. Apparently, the driving cause of this was “lack of header tank pressure”. This means there was not enough fuel to produce the required thrust to slow down the rocket before the landing pad.

In the inevitabilities of what seem to be failure, somehow, the company still managed to put on a show. SpaceX Starship SN8 hop test flight ended with a literal BANG.

spacex starship hop 12
source: SpaceX

It seems there is consensus among SpaceX that many test objectives were successfully achieved. The company was able to gather sufficient data, so… the mission was a success! (regardless of the fact that they didn’t quite “stick the landing”).

crash landing gif
source: the atlantic

All in all, the rocket was airborne for 6 minutes and 42 seconds, and was well in aerodynamic control the entire time up until the crash landing.

What did you expect? SpaceX has a long history of testing rockets, many of which have failed the first time. As with any innovative and new technology, there’s never any guarantee. But one thing is for sure – SpaceX Starship will fly again. There will be another test flight in the not too distant future. There were a few key wins and objectives complete, which we will stay updated about as we learn more.

Wins for Starship

  • “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” – Elon
  • This was the longest in-flight firing of a raptor engine, ever.
  • The spaceship was in fine-tuned control almost the entire time.
  • Starship demonstrated a successful pivot
  • SpaceX gathered all the data they need.
  • The world has been inspired.

The victorious path towards Mars is well underway, its going to happen faster than we realize! Stay updated with the latest on Starship, missions to Mars, and more space technology by signing up for the newsletter.

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Sources & Streams that are worth checking out:

SpaceX Starship Overview 2021

Starship Rocket Overview

Important Breakthroughs

  • Propellant production in Boca Chica will be important to optimize the supply chain.
  • Rapidly reusable rockets – like air travel or car travel, you don’t get a new car every time you take a trip.
    • Re-usability will allow flying the booster 20 times per day, and the ship 3-4 times per day. Reason ships can only be used a few times a day: since ship goes to orbit, the track of a satellite is sinusoidal (unless it is equatorial or san-synchronous). you have to wait for the ground path to sync up with the launch site. It takes like 6 hours to sync up.
  • Satellite Delivery: Currently, the company uses Falcon to deliver satellites for Starlink. Starship will be able to deliver satellites further and at a lower marginal cost per launch, as Startship has a much greater payload..
  • SpaceX created the Raptor engine, which has a very high specific impulse. Because Earth’s gravity is quite high, we are just on the cusp of reusable rockets being physically possible. Raptor engine (it will have 6 engines) uses mostly oxygen per unit of fuel (3.5 tons of oxygen for every 1 ton of fuel).
  • Making it to orbit was tough… landing the rocket was tougher, and SpaceX was the first to do so.

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Reducing Launch Mass

  • Steel: the rocket it made of steel. It has the perfect combination of strength and heat resistance. Because of this, the rocket will be able to have a smaller heat shield, and only need a heat shield on 1 side of the ship. This will reduce launch mass.
  • Orbital re-fueling: Starship attaches to another rocket containing fuel while in orbit, making it pace.

Starship Demographics

Image
Raptor Engine. Source: @brandondeyoung_ twitter

SpaceX has published a quite succinct user guide with detailed information.

  • Engine: Raptor
  • Fuel: Methane and Liquid Oxygen (CH4 and LOX)
  • Length: 72 meters
  • Diameter: 9 meters
  • Material: Stainless Steel
  • Payload: 100 tons
  • Nomenclature: SN9 stands for “Serial Number 9”

Starship flights:

Starship performed its first test flight on July 26, 2019 and has so far performed 6 orbital test flights.

Starship SN8 flight recap

Sources:

SpaceX Earth to Earth Travel

Earth to Earth Key Takeaways

  • Air travel will be 20 times faster.
  • Under 1 hour travel time to and from anywhere on Earth.
  • Ticket price may be significantly higher than airlines, at least initially.

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The experience for consumers will start with a boat ride from the departing city, to the rocket launch site roughly 20 miles offshore. Passengers will exit the ferry and begin boarding Starship. The reason it is in the ocean a few miles from any cities is strategic – for safety and to help minimize noise pollution.

In an interview, Gwynne Shotwell has described Earth to Earth in depth and states with confidence that this is something that will definitely exist.

After launch, Starship will exit Earth’s atmosphere and enter orbit, where the vacuum of space will allow frictionless travel at 16,777 miles per hour. Most journeys will take less than 30 minutes, and will be able to go anywhere on Earth in under an hour. For example, passengers will be able to travel from New York City to Shanghai, China in under 39 minutes. The same distance on an airplane would take 15 to 20 hours.

SpaceX has a list of estimated time-tables on their website:

spacex earth to earth travel times
Earth to Earth travel time comparisons. Source: spacex.com

The voyage will feel incredibly smooth, without any of the turbulence often experienced during airplane flights.

In addition to human transport, the US Transportation Command has teamed up with SpaceX to apply the technology in the area of distribution and logistics, where “point-to-point rapid movement of vital resources” would enhance a global supply chain. [1]

SpaceX’s Advantage

SpaceX profitability is important because the company needs to fund future space exploration endeavors; they aim to establish a base on the moon, colonize Mars, and invest in R&D to further advance rocket technology.

“In addition to vastly increased speed, one great benefit to traveling in space outside of Earth’s atmosphere is the lack of friction as well as turbulence and weather.
– SpaceX

With point to point rocket travel on Earth, if SpaceX succeeds in being first to market, they will gain the first mover advantage. The first mover advantage for a space exploration company may be broken down into a couple components:

  • Brand Recognition: SpaceX has done well with establishing strong brand recognition, although spending practically $0 on marketing.
  • Technology: The company has made more than a few advancements and has achieved quite a lot in the way of space technology – from creating Starlink satellite network to landing rockets and making the first fully reusable ship, space travel is significantly cheaper than before. While a typical commercial airplane cannot fly more than one route per day, SpaceX will be able to run 10X the number of flights per day thanks to rocket reusability and faster vehicle turnaround time.
  • Customer Loyalty: The company has built customer loyalty by consistently and successfully helping NASA with various projects [2]. NASA will certainly appear as a repeat customer into the future, and they seem to have a strong partnership.
  • Consumer trust: SpaceX has a rigorous testing process and spent many years before attempting a mission carrying humans. SpaceX makes a point of putting safety first, and has spoken about their goal of making risk not small, but “tiny”. SpaceX has already, for example, sold its first commercial moon flight to art investor Yusaku Maezawa with the #DearMoon mission. [3]
  • Competition: Space travel, exploration and associated technologies are a big whitespace in the market. There are few – if any – competitors entering the market for most of SpaceX’s services. The aerospace industry has Blue Origin, NASA (government), Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, but none of these companies are doing quite the same thing as SpaceX. Given the lack of competitors, SpaceX will play a major role setting the market price for this new type of air travel, which brings negotiating power and optimum competitive positioning. CEO Elon Musk has stated that “competition is good, bring it on” [4] in response to a question about Boeing as a competitor. The SpaceX Earth to Earth service will effectively compete with international airlines, but the target market / end consumer is a small portion of travelers who need to get to their destination quickly and have the financial means to do so.
  • Economies of scale: As SpaceX serves these of customers, the company will continue to try to develop cheaper and better ways to launch people and cargo into outer space. As more people take journeys, the economies of scale that result from these innovations will create a more cost efficient means of doing so.

Carbon Capture

Elon Musk replied to a question about carbon-capture for rocket fuel, stating that “rocket flights will be zero-net carbon long term.”

Airplanes account for 9% of US emissions from transportation. Believe it or not, rockets will be a more environmentally friendly method of transportation than a traditional airplane.

Cost of Earth to Earth rocket service versus Airlines?

Airlines are actually not super profitable. Airlines have been quite un-profitable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although large by revenue, airline expenses are also very large, so they operate on low margins.

For example, the cost of operations of one of the larger commercial airplanes, the Airbus A30, averages $27500 per hour, which extrapolates to roughly $550,000 total to fly from New York City to Shanghai, China.

The Cost of SpaceX Earth to Earth travel depends on a couple of factors. Passenger cost to break-even essentially comes down to cost per launch / number of passengers. Financials – total operating expenses and margins per flight to calculate minimum sales price to break even. These numbers aren’t yet published.

How much will consumers pay?

Note that carrying capacity (number of passenger seats) on Starship is around 1000 passengers for Earth to Earth, compared to only 100 passengers for a mission to Mars due to the need for spacious amenities on a longer mission. With more passengers onboard for an Earth to Earth voyage, costs could be driven down since it would be divided among more passengers.

source: spacex

Like airlines in the 1940’s, rapid Earth to Earth transit via rocket may likely be a luxury high end service for the first few years. There are 46.8 million people in the world who have a net worth of $1 million or more, so SpaceX probably has a sizeable target market to sell rocket seats.

The amount a consumer is willing to pay depends on the amount of value created. The best way to approach this by thinking about the value of a person’s time. A 20 hour NYC to Shanghai flight versus 1 hour rocket ship ride means 19 hours time saved. When you consider that someone travelling on business could add 19 hours of hypothetical productive time, the value becomes much more clear. Companies would even likely be willing to pay more for this service as they have to write off travel time as an employee payroll expense anyways.

The question is, how much is your time worth? The value is saving people time on air travel. How much is this 19 hours of time saved worth to you?

How much will tickets cost?

According to Head of Operations Gwynne Shotwell, tickets will be cheaper than a first class ticket, but more than economy. Gwynne has mentioned that SpaceX may likely charge a few thousand dollars per passenger per flight. Perhaps one day, the company may provide flights to consumers at a low enough cost to be affordable to the average person. We don’t quite know how much it will cost

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Sources:

  1. https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/panewsreader.cfm?ID=29ADE173-D927-8E46-7C6CBC100BAD9F71&yr=2020
  2. https://www.nasa.gov/johnson/HWHAP/welcome-home-bob-and-doug
  3. https://dearmoon.earth/
  4. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/251129