There seem to be two extremes when it comes to Elon Musk and SpaceX. There are those that believe everything Elon tries will work because–ELON. There are those that believe SpaceX has reached the end of its’ lucky tether because–ELON. The extreme factions make it a bit more difficult for those of us that try to think, or second guess , what will unfold in the SpaceX universe.
Starship typifies the extremes. Some believe that Starship will be in full service within a year delivering 100+ ton payloads multiple times per day at a cost per flight well under even Falcon9. There are others that don’t see Starship becoming operational in this decade. Again the extreme factions throw a bit more murk out there to peer through.
There are still quite a few of us somewhere in the middle that doubt both extremes. For my part, I suspect it will become operational mid decade at a price point above Falcon9 per launch, though well under it per unit of mass. For heavy lift, SLS isn’t even on the radar of those that wish to open up space as a place for humanity to live, work, and grow.
Where I second guess Starship and Superheavy is on the sequence used in the development path. I felt there was a good bit of hubris in going for the largest launch vehicle in history with several concurrent new technologies in one jump. I did not strongly hold these opinions until seeing the difficulties with ground support equipment, regulatory approvals, and ersatz-environmentalist tantrums. Hence Second Guessing. This is not a recommendation going forward, rather a hindsight thought.
Considering that many of the issues are caused by the sheer size of the vehicle, it is worth considering what could have been done with a more modest precursor vehicle. For this post, I am suggesting a Falcon9 type layout, though that may not be the best possible size or configuration. 9 Raptor engines first stage and one Raptor vac on the expended second stage.
(simplifying) Assuming that Raptor has twice the thrust and a higher Isp than the Merlin, the Falcon/Raptor (FR) should have a bit over twice the payload of the Falcon9. Assuming that Elon and company have accurately forecast that Starship will cost less per launch than Falcon, then the configuration here should have a launch cost about 25% that of Falcon9. Assuming that the 3 launches per day per Superheavy are not a total fantasy, then the FR booster should be able to hit a cadence of once per day with RTLS.
Assuming that had been done, what would it have gained? For starters, the Starship test flights last year would have been first stage FR test flights. Those test flights could have been followed by full up test flights by the end of last year with operational missions starting early this year. By now it seems reasonable that launch cadence could be approaching that of the Falcon9.
Construction of (hand waving) 5 meter diameter first stages would take about half the time and materials per unit of height as either Starship or the Superheavy boosters. Remember the problems getting the welds right early on? Learning curve (time) could possibly been halved. Along with smaller faster ground equipment construction with about a quarter of the propellant volume requirements per test. Problems could have been found and addressed even sooner than the current gargantuan effort.
Regulators seem to be having problems with the size of the Superheavy Starship combo. Kilotons of equivalent explosive seems to come up on a regular basis. Decibels created by the largest launch vehicle in history gets some of them going. It seems possible that a FR could be passed off as the next logical Falcon upgrade. Somewhat larger to accommodate the more environmentally friendly fuels. A diameter and height that could (theoretically) use the same launch pads as Falcon9. The higher payload is just a byproduct of more efficient engines, nothing to worry about. Pads at the cape and Vandenberg could be modified relatively quickly to handle both types of Falcon
Environmentalists, real and ersatz, would have a much harder time fighting a vehicle that was just a bit larger than what was in the original EIS, really just a minor upgrade in the scheme of things. With no immediate need for massive expansion due to the smaller vehicle, there would have been far less they could try to block. Everything necessary being permitted and underway before drawing their serious attention.
If the Superheavy/Starship combo hits full operational status shortly, then most everything in this post can be used to ridicule me. If the costs per launch are in the single digit millions within a couple of years, the ridicule can be redoubled. I would accept that ridicule with a smile, and possibly a few belly laughs. I do not expect it to just coast to a smooth operational status in a short time frame. If I am right, then a smaller ship as the FR could be finding the problems with operating an extreme performance methane engine launch vehicle at a quarter of the engine/airframe cost per boom/lesson. And those lessons could have been accumulating starting about a year ago. This is not casting shade on SpaceX, this is about biting off a huge chunk that may be too much to swallow easily for anybody.
It seems that the strongest argument has to do with Starlink2. If FR were operational by now, it could be launching 100 or so Starlink1 per flight or ~50 of the Starlink2 as they come on line. Assuming that Superheavy/Starship could operate for the same cost per launch as Falcon9, then this purported FR should cost about 25% of that. So Starlink1 would be hitting orbit at roughly 12-13% of the launch cost per sat as those launched on Falcon9. Starlink2 at a little over twice the mass would cost perhaps 30% of what it costs to do a Starlink1 with Falcon9. If Superheavy/Starship has a suggested turn around of up to 3 times per day, then it seems that an FR could hit once per day even while ironing out operational bugs. One ship flying daily with 40 Starlink2 on board would be placing 200 of them per 5 day week. That would be 10,000 Starlink2 per airframe per year. With the current build rate at Boca, there would be no need to rely on one airframe. Perhaps three each at Boca, the Cape, and Vandenberg, with Wallops and Kodiak if needed.