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Analyst: Can SpaceX start Starship launches at scale?

December 8, 2023

Analysts at Quilty Space pose the question of whether Elon Musk’s plans for SpaceX’s all-new Starship giant rocket can achieve scale.

For example, after November’s launch of its second-ever Starship vehicle, Musk posted a picture of four more Starships lined up in one stage or another of assembly, and which he described as “the last of Version 1.”

What’s interesting here, says Quilty, besides the coming shift to a Gen-2 design, is that SpaceX is tackling two significant problems at once: (1) making something new and (2) producing it at scale.

“Normally, most companies attack these problems in series, but given the complexity and time scale required to build a launch vehicle, the “series approach” has historically resulted in a multi-year scaling up process that yields less than three launches per year over the first five years of operation,” suggests Quilty.

SpaceX learned about this challenge in 2017, when demand (then for GEO launches) outstripped supply of Falcon 9 rockets. Musk has repeatedly stated that production is the hard part, both with rockets and at his electric car company, Tesla.

This concern is apparently why Starship development looks nothing like other rockets. Rather than producing a single prototype and then scaling production up subsequently, SpaceX is stamping out copies of new vehicles without pause. Indeed, its Starship Test Rocket 3 mighjt launch within a few weeks.

“With this approach, Starship could skip the production strain that often slows new vehicles, as has been seen with Rocket Lab’s Electron and Firefly’s Alpha rockets. Add in reusability, and Starship could leapfrog traditional early launch rates, easily doubling the normative cadence of new rockets, if not more,” adds Quilty.

“Of course, linking production and prototyping introduces new production risks. If a serial technical flaw is found, multiple rockets would need to be reworked. But if successful, Starship could scale at a pace that eclipses its peers, and makes Musk’s vision of daily launches that much more feasible,” states Quilty.

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