It appears that SpaceX is preparing a dedicated website for its proposed Starship point-to-point transport system, potentially capable of transporting dozens of passengers anywhere on Earth in just 30-60 minutes.
Assuming this website is actually a prelude to a SpaceX reveal (it could be completely unrelated), it seems likely that Starship.com will go live sometime around CEO Elon Musk’s planned June 20th update on Starship and Super Heavy. Much like Starlink.com went live on the day of SpaceX’s first dedicated launch, the company may be ready to tease more substantial details and fleshed-out plans for its aspirational Starship airline.
Big Falcon Challenge
Regardless of the theoretical viability of SpaceX’s Earth-to-Earth transport aspirations or the company’s readiness to kick off the publicity for the service, the fact remains that maturing Starship/Super Heavy (formerly BFR) into a system with reliability approaching that of airliners will take at least 5-10 years, if not decades. The idea itself – using reusable rockets to transport customers anywhere on Earth in 30-60 minutes at a cost comparable to business class tickets – is undeniably alluring and theoretically achievable. However, the list of “iff” statements that must first be satisfied for is immense and full of an array of technological firsts, any one of which could be a showstopper.
The greatest challenge of affordable, reliable point-to-point transport relates directly to the need for affordability and reliability. Put simply, rockets are in many ways far more complex than modern airliners, requiring margins of design and error and that would make commercial aircraft engineers blush. Modern FAA regulations currently expect manufacturers and operators to design, build, and fly passenger aircraft such that the chances of catastrophic failure (generally a fatal crash and total hull loss) average one in one billion flight hours. That may sound downright unachievable, but modern airliners routinely reach levels of reliability measured in hundreds of millions of flight hours between loss-of-life failures.
The best records of rocket reliability are currently held by Ariane 5 and Atlas V, reaching success streaks without catastrophic failure of 86 launches and 81 launches, respectively. It’s difficult to compare airliners and rockets, as rockets feature multiple stages and are typically only active for 30-90 minutes. Under the generous and inaccurate assumption that the average Ariane 5 mission accounts for 90 minutes of “flight time”, the most statistically reliable launch vehicle ever built is roughly 1,000,000 to 10,000,000 times less safe than the FAA’s present-day certification requirements. It would be more accurate to compare the distance traveled per catastrophic failure, but that would still indicate that the proven safety record of launch vehicles is perhaps 20,000 to 200,000 times worse than that of modern passenger aircraft.
Extreme reusability: extreme reliability?
Additionally, most modern rockets are expended, although SpaceX is doing everything it can to flip that equation. The only conceivable way to sustain a real commercial market for suborbital, hypersonic passenger transportation – aside from guaranteeing that passengers are unlikely to die – is to implement a level of rapid reusability that is entirely unprecedented in spaceflight. As it turns out, regardless of any Earthbound spaceliner ambitions the company may have, SpaceX’s ultimate mission is to accomplish precisely that goal, albeit in order to colonize Mars in a practical timeframe.
What has never explicitly been a part of SpaceX’s goal, however, is achieving that level of extreme reusability simultaneously alongside airliner-class reliability. Accepting high levels of risk has always been front and center to Elon Musk’s presentations on SpaceX’s BFR-powered Mars ambitions, with the CEO often indicating that chances of death would be quite high on early missions to the Red Planet. Of course, surviving and building a colony on Mars is a fair bit riskier than anything specifically centered around Earth and suborbital flight regimes.
All of this is to say that SpaceX may or may not succeed in its ambition of developing a spacecraft/booster that is as extraordinarily reliable as it is reusable, just as SpaceX may or may not publish a website dedicated to Earth-to-Earth Starship transport sometime next month. Stay tuned to find out on the next episode!
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