10 February 2021

Ars Technica: “Inside Elon Musk’s plan to build one Starship a week—and settle Mars”

Compare that to NASA and its Space Launch System, the big rocket that the space agency has been developing for a decade and for which Boeing only recently completed a single core stage. This core stage is about 15 meters taller than Starship but lacks its complexity. NASA will, in fact, toss each SLS core stage into the ocean after a single use. And Boeing doesn’t have to make the engines, as the rocket uses 40-year-old space shuttle main engines. Despite this, and with nearly $2 billion in annual funding from NASA, Boeing’s stretch goal for building core stages is one to two per year… some time in the mid-2020s.

SpaceX’s stretch goal is to build one to two Starships a week, this year, and to pare back construction costs to as low as $5 million each.

A high production rate solves many ills, he said. If you have a high production rate, you have a high iteration rate. For pretty much any technology whatsoever, the progress is a function of how many iterations do you have, and how much progress do you make between each iteration. If you have a high production rate then you have many iterations. You can make progress from one to the next.

None of this is cheap. Boca Chica is a fairly remote location to ship materials into. And the company has gone really fast, sparing few expenses. How long can it go like this, and how is he paying for all of this? Musk declined to offer specifics.

We’re just paying for it internally, he said. Then he paused and added, Success is not assured.

Eric Berger

Interesting insight into the concrete aspects of Elon Musk’s plans to reach, and eventually colonize, Mars. Considering both test flights of his new Starship prototype have ended with a bang, I wouldn’t say he is making much progress between iterations just yet. In this case, I tend to agree with his approach of building up a production line and reducing manufacturing costs – although he doesn’t seem to have learned much about micromanagement from his awful Tesla experiences – but I suspect there are less wasteful ways to test prototypes than shooting them up into the sky and hoping for the best. It certainly makes for exciting headlines – and stokes Musk’s huge ego, no doubt.

SpaceX SN9 liftoff
Liftoff of SN9 sure looked fine on Tuesday afternoon

That being said, NASA’s overcautious approach has not exactly managed to put humans on Mars these past decades – or to return to the Moon for that matter. I am eager to see if Jeff Bezos can find a more sensible middle ground to build a lasting presence in space, now that he plans to focus more closely on this subject.

As for Mars, there are many more aspects to consider before sending people there, issues that Elon Musk has so far conveniently brushed aside. But if he’s spending most of his money blowing up Starships, he will likely never get past this point…

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