Starship, Starlink… SpaceX, a champion in an 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 forecastle even in the worst storms. Mister Musk is an anxious, tormented, fussy, borderline depressive alter ego. In recent weeks, the founder of SpaceX has made a brilliant demonstration of this dual personality. At the beginning of December, the 50-year-old split an alarmist email to the group’s 9,000 employees on the difficulties of producing the Raptor engine, which is to propel 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, quite frankly, a disaster”, wrote the billionaire, referring to a “real risk of bankruptcy”. Three weeks later, the imperturbable Mister Elon was Asked in the podcast of Lex Fridman, 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 staggering timetable: “In five years in the best of times. case, in ten years at the worst.”

Does the richest man in history suffer from bipolar disorder? The double discourse he holds reflects in any case the specificity of the SpaceX house: a group knowingly maintained by its founder on a narrow crest line between glory and the abyss, stratospheric success and total cataclysm. “With SpaceX, Musk invented the concept of a permanent start-up, sums up Pierre Lionnet, an economist specializing in space at Eurospace. Where other companies take big risks in the first years before reaping the benefits, he maintains his company at the highest level of risk since 2002. The small Falcon 1 launcher had not yet stabilized before it was already launching Falcon 9. When the latter was ramping up, it was already on the reuse 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 which challenges the other side of the Atlantic. “Not a single European space executive would remain in post 24 hours after this type of email calling for the cancellation of his vacation”, notes the boss 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 year 2021 in all respects. SpaceX carried out 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 launchers. It has reached the bar of the first 100 stages of Falcon 9 recovered, one of these stages having even flown eleven times. He was selected in April by NASA, under the nose and beard of rival Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to provide the lunar lander of 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 while placing in orbit 800 satellites of its Starlink constellation, a giant project of 30,000 satellites intended to connect the whole world to high-speed Internet. Result: from 21 billion in mid-2017, the group’s valuation rose to 100.3 billion at 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 ultimate goal of the billionaire, SpaceX has embarked on two monumental projects, which it must carry out simultaneously. First, the development of the Starship/Super Heavy launcher, currently in the test 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-tonne monster must revolutionize space transport thanks to unprecedented power: it will be able to place 100 tonnes in low orbit, i.e. five times the capacity of Ariane 6. “If SpaceX manages to carry out this program, the impact on the space sector will be major, with a gigantic payload capacity that could revolutionize scientific missions and space exploration”, underlines Philippe Baptiste, president of Cnes, the French space agency. Especially since unlike Falcon 9, of which only the first stage is recoverable, Starship would be 100% reusable.

The giant launcher has already been selected by NASA, the American space agency, to serve as a lunar lander for astronauts on the Artemis missions. But it is for the conquest of Mars that Musk thought and designed it. Each Starship could, according to the American billionaire, embark a hundred passengers towards the red planet. Elon Musk even wants to make it a high-speed means of transport between different points on Earth, which would connect New York and Shanghai in just half an hour. These objectives leave many specialists skeptical. “These gigantic ambitions, on a range 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.

Starship, the weak link?

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

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

The problem is that the development of 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 rate unprecedented in the industry. To meet its goal (delusional, say the experts) of 25 launches in 2022, SpaceX therefore needs 875 Raptors. There are currently 150 available. “My biggest problem is the production of the engines, confirmed Musk on December 28 in Lex Fridman’s podcast. As I often say, developing a prototype is easy. Moving into the production phase is much more difficult.”

To be able to launch its Starships from Texas and from a new launch pad at Cape Canaveral (Florida), SpaceX must also obtain the green light from American regulators. But these are proving to be picky: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has postponed for two months, to 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 before March, at best. The vigilance of the FAA is understandable: a Starship/Super Heavy embarks the equivalent of 151 tankers of liquid methane and 219 trucks of liquid oxygen. “A possible explosion would be comparable to the one which devastated the port of Beirut in August 2020 and was felt as far as Cyprus, more than 200 km away”, calculated Stefan Barensky, co-founder of the specialized magazine Aerospatium, in the express last September.

Starlink will cost 240 billion

The Starlink program appears just as ambitious. Admittedly, SpaceX has had a successful commercial launch, with 100,000 customers of the beta version of its service, who pay 99 dollars a month, plus 499 dollars for ground equipment. But the offer, with 2,000 satellites in orbit, is still in its infancy: to serve the millions of customers expected by SpaceX, 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 profitability that would not be reached until 2030. By then, SpaceX should burn 37 billion cash, a gigantic sum for an actor who achieved only 1.2 billion dollars in turnover in 2021.

The economic model of constellations intended for connectivity also remains very uncertain. Satellites have a lifespan of only five years, which forces them to be launched almost continuously, and makes profitability difficult to achieve. Most of the projects have also gone through bankruptcy 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 could weaken Starlink, underlines Xavier Pasco. We saw protests from China in early January, which indicated that its space station had to carry out two maneuvers to avoid a collision with SpaceX satellites.”

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

Could SpaceX turn out to be a bubble ready to burst? The scenario appears highly improbable. Even in the event of a blow to Starship and Starlink, Elon Musk has many aces in his game. “He can raise money, which he has never had trouble doing, with almost 2 billion dollars per year raised in recent years, Pierre Lionnet points out to Eurospace.He can also obtain support from NASA and the Pentagon: SpaceX has become a “too big to fail” supplier, which launches astronauts to the International Space Station and puts military satellites into orbit. Another option, probably the simplest, Musk can sell part of his stake in Tesla, valued at 880 billion dollars after having reached 1,200 billion, to finance SpaceX. An operation that would be almost painless for him.

American institutional support

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

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