Starship, Starlink… SpaceX, a master of unstable orbit

Elon Musk is like a box of chocolates: you never know which one you’re going to get. Doctor Elon is a visionary entrepreneur, overly optimistic, standing on the edge even in the worst storms. Mister Musk is an anxious, tormented, pushy, borderline depressive alter ego. In recent weeks, the founder of SpaceX has made a brilliant demonstration of this dual personality. In early December, the 50-year-old shared an alarming email to the group’s 9,000 employees about the difficulties in producing the Raptor engine that will power the new giant Starship launcher, whose first flight is scheduled soon. “Unless you have critical family issues or are physically unable to return to Hawthorne [l’usine de SpaceX près de Los Angeles]we need everyone on deck to recover from what is, frankly, a disaster,” the billionaire wrote, citing a “real risk of bankruptcy.” Three weeks later, the unflappable Mister Elon was asked on Lex Fridman’s podcast, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the date of the first manned Starship missions to Mars, Musk thought for long seconds before drawing a dizzying schedule: “In five years at best. In ten years at worst. .”

Does the richest man in history suffer from bipolar disorder? In any case, the double discourse he holds reflects the specificity of the SpaceX house: a group consciously maintained by its founder on a narrow comb line between glory and the abyss, stratospheric success and total disaster. “With SpaceX, Musk invented the concept of a permanent start-up, summarizes Pierre Lionnet, an economist specializing in space in Eurospace. Where other companies take big risks in the first years before reaping the benefits, he maintains his company at the highest level. risk level since 2002. The small Falcon 1 launcher was not yet stabilized until it already launched the Falcon 9. When the latter was ramping up, it was already on the recycling of the first stage, then on the Dragon capsules and Crew Dragon, and now on the giant Starship launcher and the Starlink constellation.” A monumental pressure on the teams that challenge the other side of the Atlantic. “Not a single European space manager would remain in post 24 hours after this type of email calling for the cancellation of his vacation”, notes the head of Arianespace Stéphane Israel.

100.3 billion valuation

In any case, the strategy has proven itself. The group from Hawthorne, California has completed a historic 2021 in all respects. SpaceX completed 31 launches, a record for a private group, compared to 24 in 2020 and 13 in 2019, atomizing the competition, with the exception of the Chinese Long March launches. It has reached the crossbar for the first 100 stages of the Falcon 9 recovered, one of these stages has even flown eleven times. He was selected in April by NASA, under the nose of rival Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to provide the lunar lander for the Artemis program for the return of American astronauts to the Moon in 2025. He sent eight astronauts, including Thomas Pesquet, to the International Space Station , and four space tourists for a three-day flight around the Earth (mission Inspiration 4). All orbiting 800 satellites from its Starlink constellation, a gigantic project of 30,000 satellites to connect the entire world with high-speed Internet. Result: From 21 billion in mid-2017, the group’s valuation rose to 100.3 billion by the end of 2021, making SpaceX one of the most expensive unlisted companies in the world.

However, the hardest part is yet to come. To successfully conquer Mars, the billionaire’s ultimate goal, SpaceX has embarked on two monumental projects that it must carry out simultaneously. First, the development of the Starship/Super Heavy launcher, which is currently in the testing phase at the Boca Chica base in Texas. The largest rocket in history (120 meters, ten more than the Saturn V of the Apollo missions), this 5,200-ton monster will revolutionize space transport thanks to unprecedented power: it will be able to place 100 tons in low orbit, i.e. five times the capacity of Ariane 6. “If SpaceX manages to complete this program, the impact on the space sector will be great, with a gigantic payload capacity that can revolutionize scientific missions and space exploration”, emphasizes Philippe Baptiste, president of Cnes, French space agency. Especially since unlike the Falcon 9, of which only the first stage is recoverable, the Starship would be 100% reusable.

The giant launch vehicle has already been selected by NASA, the US space agency, to act as a lunar lander for astronauts on the Artemis missions. But it is for the conquest of Mars that Musk thought and designed it. According to the American billionaire, each Starship could take a hundred passengers on board towards the red planet. Elon Musk even wants to make it a high-speed means of transportation between different points on Earth, which will connect New York and Shanghai in just half an hour. These goals leave many specialists skeptical. “These gigantic ambitions on a number of very different missions make it a high-risk program,” said Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) and recognized expert in the space sector.

Spaceship, the weak link?

Especially since SpaceX must at the same time be successful in deploying its Starlink constellation, intended for Internet connectivity. The success of this project is crucial: the activity must go far beyond the historical business of space launches, thus providing Elon Musk with the financial means for his Mars goals. According to a study by Morgan Stanley, the constellation could generate nearly $23 billion in annual revenue by 2030 and $46.4 billion by 2040, twice as much as launch activity. “The starship and Starlink topics are closely related, emphasizes Arthur Sauzay, author of several reports on space for the Montaigne Institute. To succeed in the conquest of Mars, Musk needs Starlink, the ATM that will finance his Mars projects. And to succeed in conquering Mars. install the constellation, it absolutely needs an operational Starship launcher as soon as possible.” The latter will actually make it possible to launch 400 satellites at a time, compared to around fifty for the current Falcon 9. “Starships are what the Americans call ‘single point of failure’: if this brick does not hold, the whole building collapses”, assures Pierre The Lionnet.

Spaceship/Super Heavy rocket assembly in Boca Chica, Texas (SpaceX photo)

The problem is that the development of the Starship is very complex. Each launch vehicle is powered by 35 Raptor engines, a number never seen on a spacecraft. It is therefore necessary to produce these machines at a speed unprecedented in the industry. To reach its goal (delusional, say the experts) of 25 launches by 2022, SpaceX therefore needs 875 Raptors. There are currently 150 available. “My biggest problem is the production of the engines, Musk confirmed on December 28 on Lex Fridman’s podcast. As I often say, developing a prototype is easy. Moving into the production phase is much more difficult.”

In order to launch its Starships from Texas and from a new launch pad at Cape Canaveral (Florida), SpaceX must also get the green light from US regulators. But these are proving to be picky: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has postponed for two months, until February 28, its verdict on the environmental impact study of future launches made from the Boca Chica (Texas) site. SpaceX, which hoped to attempt a first orbital launch in January or February, will therefore not be able to launch its mega-launcher until March at best. The FAA’s vigilance is understandable: One Starship/Super Heavy carries the equivalent of 151 liquid methane tankers and 219 liquid oxygen trucks. “A possible explosion would be comparable to the one that destroyed the port of Beirut in August 2020 and could be felt as far as Cyprus, more than 200 km away”, calculated Stefan Barensky, co-founder of the specialist magazine Aerospatium, in the expression September last year.

Starlink will cost DKK 240 billion

The Starlink program appears equally ambitious. To be sure, SpaceX has had a successful commercial launch with 100,000 customers of the beta version of its service, which pays $99 a month plus $499 for ground equipment. But the offering, with 2,000 satellites in orbit, is still in its infancy: To serve the millions of customers that SpaceX expects, it will take 30,000 satellites in orbit. In its October note, Morgan Stanley estimated that the complete constellation would cost the Californian group the stratospheric sum of $240 billion, with a profitability that would not be reached until 2030. Before then, SpaceX would have to burn through 37 billion in cash, a gigantic sum for an actor who only achieved $1.2 billion in revenue in 2021.

The economic model of constellations intended for connectivity also remains very uncertain. Satellites have a lifespan of only five years, forcing them to be launched almost continuously and making profitability difficult to achieve. Most of the projects have also gone bankrupt since the 1990s, from Iridium to Globalstar, via Leosat and OneWeb. The potential saturation of low orbits (less than 2,000 km) is also a real threat. “The proliferation of satellites in orbit can generate political blockages that can weaken Starlink, emphasizes Xavier Pasco. We saw protests from China at the beginning of January, which indicated that its space station had to perform two maneuvers to avoid a collision with SpaceX satellites.”

Flight test of SpaceX’s giant Starship launcher (SpaceX image)

Could SpaceX turn out to be a bubble ready to burst? The scenario seems highly unlikely. Even in the event of a battle against Starship and Starlink, Elon Musk has many aces in his game.”He can raise money, which he has never had problems with, with almost 2 billion dollars a year raised in recent years, points out Pierre Lionnet to Eurospace. He may also get support from NASA and the Pentagon: SpaceX has become a “too big to fail” supplier, launching astronauts to the International Space Station and putting military satellites into orbit. Another option, probably the simplest, Musk can sell part of his stake in Tesla, worth $880 billion after reaching $1.2 trillion, to finance SpaceX, an operation that would be almost painless for him.

US institutional support

One thing is certain: it would be very unwise to underestimate the billionaire, as the European space industry tended to do in the late 2000s. “He has two great assets: a rather impressive talent for engineering and the enormous institutional support of the United States, which will continue to drink it with contracts”, points out Philippe Baptiste, at Cnes. The shallot race with his best enemy Jeff Bezos, who also prepares both a heavy launch vehicle (New Glenn) and a telecom constellation (Kuiper), is also a powerful lever of motivation.Whether it is in the Doctor Elon or Mister Musk version, the richest man in the world remains equally formidable.

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