Starships from the north

On 17 November, SpaceX made a second attempt to launch its fully reusable launch vehicle, Starship Superheavy, from the company’s Boca Chica launch site in Texas. The first launch (video here, with launch at 44:48), on 21 April, got off the pad, but a number of engines on the Superheavy first stage failed and the Starship failed to separate from the booster. This meant that the ‘stack’—the combination of the first stage and the spacecraft—had to be destroyed in a launch abort as the rocket tumbled out of control. The launch pad was severely damaged.

The second launch was much more successful, achieving ‘hot staging’ and separation of the main booster. The flight was terminated after the signal to the upper stage was lost. Several more tests will be required before Starship is declared ready for commercial business.

At that point, it will transform how humans access space, potentially dropping the cost dramatically. The key is Starship’s full reusability. The Superheavy first stage will return to a soft landing at the launch site and the Starship upper stage will ultimately do the same. In fully reusable mode, Starship can deploy up to 150 tons of payload—up to 100 crew and cargo—into low-earth orbit (LEO). Once in orbit, it can be refueled, and then deliver that payload to the moon, to Mars and beyond. In an expendable configuration, it can deliver 250 tons to LEO. A lunar lander variant of Starship will take US astronauts down to the lunar surface for NASA’s Artemis III mission scheduled for 2025.

The key advantage of Starship’s full reusability is low launch costs. A report on NASA’s fully expendable Space Launch System, which is designed to support Project Artemis, found that it will launch at best once a year, at a cost of US$2.5 billion per launch over the first 10 launches. In comparison, the fully reusable SpaceX Starship will likely be initially comparable to the cost of SpaceX Falcon at US$67 million, but with a higher launch tempo costs will fall further. The company’s owner, Elon Musk, has an ultimate goal of US$1 million per launch and multiple launches per week.

Dramatically lower launch costs, combined with much greater payload, will open up new opportunities to use space. With 150 tons to orbit, at US$1 million per launch, it becomes conceivable to think about building large structures in earth, or lunar, orbit, whether that’s a space station to support space manufacturing or  large fully reusable spacecraft to support missions across the inner solar system. Indeed, Starship itself could do a ‘Mars direct’ profile mission, taking astronauts directly to the red planet.

It is the commercial possibilities for large-scale space utilization, space manufacturing and space resource exploitation that are the most interesting opportunities. High payload and low cost to orbit, on an almost daily basis, is a totally transformative.

There’s a potential Australian dimension to this future, which is now open to consideration, if policy leaders are prepared to think boldly about this nation’s future in space. The technology safeguards agreement on space launches and returns, which was signed last month at the summit in Washington between US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, will allow US companies to carry out space launch activities in Australia. This agreement will increase the opportunities for US space companies to fully exploit the benefits of Australia’s geography.

As I noted in my recent ASPI report, Australia’s north and space, the launch sites at Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory and Bowen in Queensland, and the proposed launch site at Weipa in northern Queensland, are well placed to take advantage of the earth’s rotational energy to achieve orbit at a lower cost. In addition, the southern launch sites at Whaler’s Way in South Australia, and another proposed for Albany in Western Australia, are ideal for launching payloads into polar and sun-synchronous orbits, given the southern orientation and proximity to open ocean.

The potential therefore needs to be considered that the US–Australia agreement on launches and returns could open up the possibility of exploiting the SpaceX Starship’s capabilities, including its proposed point-to-point capacity for rapid ‘rocket logistics’, including for defence and national security missions.

The scenario would look something like this. In 2030, a Starship launches at Boca Chica in Texas and flies into LEO, where it delivers up to 150 tons of payload to orbit. It then manoeuvres in orbit to dock with a commercial space platform, run as part of NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program. There it picks up personnel and cargo, offloads additional cargo and crew, and then undocks and aligns for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Instead of returning to Boca Chica, the Starship returns to an Australian launch site—perhaps Nhulunbuy or Whaler’s Way—where it offloads personnel and cargo. It is refuelled and restacked with another superheavy first stage that has returned from an earlier mission, and when ready, launches into orbit from that Australian launch site. Once its tasks are complete, it re-enters and returns to Boca Chica.

Such a scenario would have seemed fanciful some years ago, but the technologies inherent in Starship, together with the signing of the US–Australia agreement, make this vision of routine launches from Australia and returns from space to Australia possible in coming decades.

To make this glimpse into the future a reality, the Australia government must now put substance behind the agreement and actually support the establishment of sovereign space launch centres in Australia. The launch sites under development must be swiftly approved, and funded, with the aim of growing them into a substantial national capability that can support not only US launch activities, but sovereign launch capabilities by leading Australian launch providers, such as Gilmour Space Technologies.

The agreement must light a fire to drive government support for sovereign space launch, which will then form the core activity of a national space sector. The development of a national space strategy, building on the previous government’s proposed national space plan, needs to proceed with sovereign launch sites and launch vehicles at the centre of national space activity. Simply put, the agreement must force the government to support space nationally.

There can be no backtracking to the passive dependency of the past. The future beckons us to recognise that fortune favours the bold and move forward.