What’s the Deal?

SpaceX and Starlink, what’s the deal with all my posts lately.

Elon Musk got his start developing (and selling) an online yellow pages-type site in the 90s. He used that money to fund his next project, an online bank called X.com. Musk earned his first real fortune about three years later when he sold his stake in Paypal. (Musk’s company, X.com and another company, Confinity, had merged to become Paypal.)

Musk had been talking about Mars for a while and with just shy of 200 million dollars in his pocket from the Paypal sale, Musk decided he would use some of his new fortune to send a rocket to Mars. The trip was intended to re-ignite excitement about space and space exploration.

To find his Mars rocket, first he went to Europe to see if he could buy one from Arianespace. Musk decided they wanted too much for their rocket and next he tried to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile from Russia. Again the price wasn’t right, and after these two failures, Musk decided he would just build his own rocket. (How hard could it be, right?)

He became a student of rocketry, aerodynamics, space launch systems, and more. He read all the textbooks and papers. He talked to all the experts in all the fields. And then he began to hire them. They would form a company and build an initial test rocket, called Falcon 1, that in about 5 years of development time would become the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to achieve Earth orbit. That company, called SpaceX, would, about 5 years later, in 2010 launch a second generation rocket, the Falcon 9. Falcon 9 would evolve over the next 5 years to become a partially re-usable rocket (the bigger and more expensive part of the rocket, the booster, flies back to Earth, lands, and is used for repeat launches) achieving its first successful landing in 2015 and first reuse in 2017. Today, the Falcon 9 program has over 110 flights with about half being on reused boosters.

With a small fleet of these re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, and the steeply discounted prices they could offer, SpaceX was able to capture the lion’s share of the global satellite launch business over the next several years. And with that same program, SpaceX also gained a considerable share of contracts for U.S. Government launches including lucrative International Space Station cargo and astronaut crew missions.

Revenue from its space launch business was used to fund the design and development of SpaceX’s next ambitious rocket, a spacecraft that would eventually be called Starship. Taking re-usability lessons, and actual engineering and software, from the proven Falcon 9 program, scaling it up about five times, and making it fully reusable, the Starship program would be suitable not just for even cheaper access to Earth orbit, but, finally, Musk’s trip to Mars

Twenty years after his initial plan to send a rocket to Mars, Musk was finally getting close. But by this time, his goals for Mars had evolved. No longer was it about a single trip to Mars to inspire a new generation of space enthusiasts, to re-ignite a passion for space exploration that had mostly cooled since the end of the Space Race. No, now his plan was much grander, to make human civilization multi-planetary by sending a million people to Mars.

Now, this new plan, a city on Mars, is going to require a massive fleet of fully reusable Mars rockets (they have to fly back from Mars, afterall, and it’s going to take many repeat trips, even with a large fleet, to deliver a colony to Mars.) Musk and SpaceX have already built and tested several full-scale prototypes of this new Starship rocket and it’s working well, but assuming the design proves sound, flexible enough for various mission profiles, and relatively cheap, SpaceX still has to build and operate a truly massive fleet of these for a Mars colonization project. And no matter how creative SpaceX is about keeping Starship’s costs down (they’re currently testing orbital and sub-orbital Starship rockets, built with stainless steel, welded together in a field, under some tents, in South Texas) a massive fleet of these massive rockets isn’t going to come cheap.

It had become clear to Musk that sending satellites, equipment, and people into low earth orbit, even if SpaceX dominated the market for those space launch services, wasn’t going to be lucrative enough to fund the production and maintenance of a Starship fleet large enough to transport a colony to Mars. Musk needed a new plan.

He looked around at what they had on hand at SpaceX, a new fleet of re-usable Falcon 9 rockets, a steady income from their space launch service, and a promising design for Starship, a vehicle capable of not only reaching Mars, but lifting gigantic payloads into Earth orbit. How could they leverage their existing resources to dramatically ramp up revenues, and quickly?

The answer was revealed in 2015 when SpaceX announced plans for a project to deliver high-speed, low latency internet from space, well, from a satellite, well, actually from a whole mess of satellites, thousands of them, probably tens of thousands. Now, to deliver high-latency, slow internet only requires a few giant, geostationary satellite and that only requires a few launches. But to deliver fast and reliable, true broadband internet service from space takes a whole bunch of satellites, as noted earlier possibly tens of thousands (assuming the they want the capacity to serve millions or hundreds of millions of people.) And that’s hundreds of rocket launches.

Well, what can SpaceX do better than any company on Earth? They can launch lots of things into Earth orbit quickly, and they can do it for dirt cheap. SpaceX’s plan would go something like this this. They would find a dozen satellite launch customers willing to pay for new Falcon 9 rockets, and then, after those commercial mission were flown, SpaceX would re-fly those same rockets, each one ten times or more (only paying for fuel and new upper stages, so super cheap) to launch thousands of their own internet satellites. (And when Starship is ready in couple of years, it will be able to launch up to ten thousand Starlink satellites each year and at a lower cost!)

They had a plan to accumulate the used Falcon 9 rockets, but they didn’t have two other important pieces of the puzzle. So SpaceX got into the satellite and antenna businesses. Once again, Musk studied up and he and SpaceX hired up some of the top people and they developed an inexpensive, super-thin and light satellite that could be built on an assembly line, flat packed, stacked, and launched into orbit by Falcon 9 in batches of 60. They also developed a consumer price-range phased array antenna that could track all of these low-flying satellites without actually moving. And they ramped up assembly lines to build the satellites and the user antennas in bulk. Today there are over 1,000 Starlink satellites in Earth orbit and that number will more than double by the end of this year — and by the end of next year there will be more Starlink satellites in orbit than all other companies’ and governments’ satellites combined.

Starlink, according to Musk, has two purposes. It exists to provide high speed, low-latency internet to millions of people around the world, mostly rural, who today lack broadband internet access or meaningful choice. And second, Starlink exists to fund the Starship program to eventually colonize Mars. SpaceX thinks that the Starlink satellite internet business can generate about 5 times the revenue of their space launch business and that’s just the kind of money they need to build, deploy, and maintain that massive fleet of massive Mars rockets.

So, this Starlink internet service that I’m testing out, and have been posting so much about lately, is also a means to Mars. And if there’s anyone reading this who was following me online back in the day, you’ll know that Mars exploration is a passion of mine. From Soujourner, to MGS and Odyssey, to MRO, Spirit and Opportunity, and through to today with Insight and Perseverance (and let’s not forget that Curiosity, Opportunity, MRO, and Odyssey are all still alive, kicking ass and taking names on and around the red planet.)

If SpaceX is successful with Starlink, Mars exploration will get a huge boost. Whether or not we will end up with a large scale colony on Mars by mid-century, I don’t know. But I do believe with Starship we could see the first humans on the red planet this decade. I think that would be amazing and that means you can expect to hear plenty more from me about SpaceX and Starlink (and Mars.)