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SpaceX’s decision to build launchpad with Starship tanks proves the rocket will be cheapest ever built

Capitalism in space: The decision by SpaceX’s to build the tank farm for its Starship/Super Heavy launchpad at Boca Chica using Starship tanks, rather than inexpensive off-the-shelf storage tanks, strongly suggests that the company’s manufacturing facility for building those tanks makes them very inexpensive, and also suggests that the final rocket will be as cheap to launch as SpaceX has promised.

SpaceX is effectively taking identical rocket parts, slightly tweaking a handful of those parts, and turning what could have been a rocket into a propellant storage tank. This is significant because relative to all other rockets in history, even including SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be roughly akin to hiring Vincent van Gogh to paint lane lines.

Ever since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite structures to stainless steel, Starship has always aimed to be radically different than any large rocket before it. Crucially, by using commodity steel, the CEO imagined SpaceX would be able to build Starships fairly easily and for pennies on the dollar next to even SpaceX’s exceptionally affordable Falcon 9. In the last 18 months, it’s become apparent that SpaceX has built a factory capable of churning out one or two massive steel rockets per month and is willing to consign at least four or five of those Starship prototypes to all-but-guaranteed failures for the sake of data-gathering and iterative improvement.

Technically, the most logical conclusion would be that Musk was right and that SpaceX has quickly developed the ability to build steel rockets larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps just $5M or less apiece.

The analysis at the link is detailed and worth reading. If correct, this decision by SpaceX proves that Starship and Super Heavy will be the cheapest rocket ever flown, even though it will be the largest ever flown, and also completely reusable.

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Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!

 

From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

 
Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
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11 comments

  • V-Man

    It’s basically the Sea Dragon approach — mak’em big, mak’em cheap.

  • Scott M.

    V-Man, I really wish they’d given Sea Dragon a shot. Partly because it might have led to low-cost shipping of materials to orbit, but also because my inner ten-year-old would have given anything to see one of them launch.

  • MDN

    Remember, they scrubbed ever trying to launch SN12-14, as well, so what to do with three partially built tank assemblies? Hmmmmm? What to do?

  • Sayomara

    I was watching one of Elons speeches from a few years ago. I was interested in his statements about using steel. Going back into the 90’s everyone has been trying to make composite’s work. Some might remember one of the many space shuttle replacements the x-33 which was also going to do vertical landings. X-33 couldn’t get the composite’s to work. composite’s were also what was going to make Spaceship 1 and 2 so great we can see where that has taken us.

    Just interesting where the whole industry was trying to make new technology work Elon went with a much more time tested material and see how well its working. This seems like lesson almost every defence contractor could learn from.

  • Leading-edge tech often ends up becoming bleeding-edge … and being bested by the mundane., like the flashy swordsman vs. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    I remember a similar, counterintuitive use of stainless steel back in the day, on the XB-70, in the form of honeycomb skin structure to keep the weight down. I even have a piece of that skin from Air Vehicle #2 (the one that crashed) on one of these – a gift from my Mrs.

    https://roncole.net/products/north-american-xb-70-valkyrie-honeycomb-laminate-skin-relic-display

    That “bird” has stuck with me; I was living near Dayton, in junior-high when it was incorporated into the Museum of the Air Force. It is impressive even on the ground, albeit obsolete as a military asset before it was completed.

  • OOPS – seems that link was busted – the “f” at the end is a typo. Feel free to edit if you wish, Robert – I didn’t re-post the link and risk giving the appearance of spamming it.

    And this is the 11×17 version – I have the smaller, 8×10 version.

  • Jester Naybor: Link fixed.

  • Thanks, Robert.

    Behind The Black, like John Batchelor’s podcasts and Instapundit, has become a regular stop for me.

  • Jeff Wright

    Now could Musk help build tanks for Buffet’s plan for Texas power back-ups? In terms of Starship…Soviet SLBMs were often liquids that dealt with the sloshing from ‘Crazy Ivans’ by being ampulized. Could separate, always full landing bladders walled off from the main tankage help quash the slosh? Venturi effect might be entrained and drawn off the main tankage via afterburner? One last thought: without vacuum Raptors-the bottom of the skirt looks empty. Could the jetstream of rocket exhaust cause a zone of low pressure such that below a certain altitude-the Earth’s atmosphere shoves Starship into the ground?

  • MDN

    Jeff:

    Rocket fuels are cryogenic and there is no such thing as a flexible bladder at their storage temperatures. That said, much comment has been made of the Starship prototypes transitioning from ascent tanks to “header” tanks as part of the transition to horizontal flight and ultimately for the flip maneuver at landing, which I interpret as essentially your idea, just effected as a small dedicated landing tank vs. a reserve segment in the main tank.

  • Jeff Wright

    Yes-that is what I meant…but I do remember work on an origami bladder that can take cryogenics in the news recently. Thus the post. Last year there was origami shock absorbers that may be good leg inserts.
    Combine them-and the harder you land-the harder you thrust! No throttle-the best part is no part, right?

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