Next-Gen Space Launch Tech: Exploring the Future

With the news that SpaceX’s Starship is nearing readiness for another test launch, FAS CEO Dan Correa has been reflecting on the potential implications of this technology for national security, space science, and commercial space activities. Correa believes that policymakers should be giving more thought and discussion to the impact of Starship and other competing space efforts. He recently spoke with Karan Kunjur and Neel Kunjur, founders of space technology startup K2 Space, to delve into the significance of the next generation of launch vehicles.

Correa starts the conversation by asking the Kunjurs to explain what SpaceX’s Starship is and why it has the potential to be a game-changer. Karan Kunjur explains that Starship is a next-generation launch vehicle and spacecraft being developed by SpaceX. It is the largest and most powerful launch system ever created, with the capacity to carry over 150 tons of payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It is also designed to be fully reusable, with the ability to launch multiple times per week. The Kunjurs believe that Starship will transform space exploration by ushering in an era of mass abundance, where the limitations of mass vs. cost trade-offs will be overturned, leading to new possibilities for scientific, commercial, and national security missions.

Correa then asks the Kunjurs about the economic sectors that are likely to be affected by Starship and other next-generation launch vehicles. Neel Kunjur explains that historically, space applications have been constrained by factors known as ‘SWAP’ – Size, Weight, and Power. This has resulted in the use of expensive, lightweight components and complex designs to fit within the constraints of current rockets. He uses the example of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to illustrate this issue. In a world with Starship, these constraints will be significantly simplified. Instead of complex designs, it will be possible to use simpler and cheaper materials, resulting in more cost-effective missions. This has implications for a wide range of missions, including satellite-based communications, remote sensing, and national security.

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Correa asks for more specific information about the cost, schedule, and performance of Starship-enabled missions compared to current approaches. Karan Kunjur provides an example of the MOSAIC concept, a mission to Mars that was estimated to cost around $1 billion using existing rockets. In a world with Starship, the same mission could cost only $200 million, thanks to the ability to launch multiple satellites in a single Starship. Each satellite can be redesigned to optimize for Starship’s capabilities, allowing the use of cheaper materials and increased capabilities in terms of power, payload mass, and volume.

The Kunjurs emphasize the importance of standardization and modularization with Starship. With the ability to carry larger payloads, it will be possible to include a consistent bundle of instruments in satellites, reducing customization and non-recurring engineering costs. This could lead to mass production of probes and increased frequency of missions at a reduced cost.

Correa then turns the conversation to the implications for the Defense Department. Neel Kunjur explains that with Starship and companies like K2 Space, the Department of Defense will have access to larger and more capable satellites at a lower cost and quicker deployment times. Instead of relying on a single satellite, the DoD can deploy constellations of high-power satellites, providing resilience and alternative options to crowded Low Earth Orbit.

Lastly, Correa brings up the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) and its use of firm, fixed-price milestone payments to achieve cost savings. The Kunjurs highlight the effectiveness of this approach, emphasizing that policy incentives can drive positive change in the space industry, just as technology can. The lessons from programs like COTS and the Space Development Agency demonstrate the importance of taking a thoughtful and innovative approach to solving problems in space exploration.

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