SpaceX has begun installing the first of numerous propellant storage tanks at its first orbital launch facilities in South Texas, a mostly ordinary and long-awaited step made extraordinary by the fact that those tanks will be built with parts. by Starship.
Labeled “GSE” for ground support equipment, the first signs of those self-built storage tanks started showing up at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory less than two months ago in mid-February. A few weeks later, the first of those SpaceX-branded cryogenic storage tanks is on the launch site for installation (and isolation), while at least two more tanks are on track for completion.
While some ground tanks may seem like a distraction in the scope of a program tasked with building the largest (and fully reusable) rocket in the world, the existence of those tanks is far more significant than it might initially appear.
Simply put, rocket propellant storage, even for extremely cold cryogenic liquids like those used by SpaceX, is a minutely problem solved. There are numerous commercial suppliers and the industrial demand for virtually identical tanks is much higher, further reducing the costs of commercial tanks even for those with specific use cases thanks to economies of scale. For SpaceX purposes, deep discounts could be obtained given that the company would need to purchase around three to four dozen 100,000 gallon commercial available tanks (COTS) to supply a launch pad with enough commodities for two Starship launches. and Super Heavy.
That initial launch capability, which SpaceX appears to be working on, would likely allow the company to begin orbital refueling test flights (and Starlink launches, perhaps) immediately upon completion. However, that initial capacity would not be sufficient for ambitious missions to Mars, the Moon or higher orbits of the Earth; where a Starship would need to be quickly resupplied with 3-10 + tanker launches. A launch facility capable of supporting 5 to 10 consecutive launches (optimally only a few hours apart) would require many times more propellant storage.
The point is that for the initial goal of two (or more) launches between refueling commodities, SpaceX could probably acquire the few dozen new storage tanks it would need for a few million dollars each for a total cost of probably between $ 50 million and $ 100 million. Instead, SpaceX has decided to design and build its own propellant storage tanks. Even more significant, the GSE tanks SpaceX has already started building appear to be virtually identical to Starships.
In other words, SpaceX is effectively taking identical rocket parts, slightly tweaking a handful of those parts, and turning what could have been a rocket into a propellant storage tank. This is significant because, compared to all other rockets in history, even SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be more or less similar to hiring. to Vincent van Gogh to paint rail lines.
Ever since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite to stainless steel, Starship has always aimed to be radically unlike any previous big rocket. Fundamentally, using basic steel, the CEO envisioned that SpaceX could build starships quite easily and for pennies on the dollar alongside the exceptionally affordable Falcon 9. Over the past 18 months, it has become apparent that SpaceX has built a factory capable of producing one or two massive steel rockets a month and he’s willing to consign at least four or five of those Starship prototypes to near-guaranteed failures for the sake of data collection and iterative improvement.
Technically, the most logical conclusion would be that Musk was right and that SpaceX has rapidly developed the ability to build steel rockets larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps only $ 5 million or less each. However, SpaceX is also raising on the order of $ 1-2 billion in venture capital annually, so technically they could afford to bear the cost of extremely expensive Starship prototypes if the company were confident that there is a way to cut those costs. and achieve the objectives. necessary for the rocket to make economic sense.
Now, the existence of self-built propellant storage tanks virtually identical to the flyable Starship airframes ensures that SpaceX is already building Starships for a few million dollars each, and possibly much less. More than a year ago, Musk said SpaceX was already building the Raptor engines that will power the Starship and Super Heavy for less than $ 1 million each and was working to mass-produce a simpler variant for less than $ 250,000. Beyond the motors and primary structures, the Starship hardware is quite simple, ranging from Tesla-derived motors, basic flaps and landing legs to pressure vessels (COPV) and ready-to-use wiring. SpaceX has achieved that extraordinary profitability despite the fact that Boca Chica is not yet approaching the level of volume production that Musk seeks, which means that there are still many more efficiencies waiting to be realized.
For now, with virtually no retrofitting and with exactly the same assembly line, SpaceX’s rocket factory in South Texas is busy churning out massive launch pad tanks, one of which is already preparing for installation, while two others hasten its completion. In total, SpaceX appears to be preparing the foundations for seven 9m wide (30ft) and 27.5m high (90ft) Starship-derived tanks that should be capable of storing ~ 2,200 tons (4.9 million tons). pounds) of liquid methane subcooled in three tanks. and ~ 7,300 tons (16.1 million pounds) of liquid oxygen in the other four tanks, enough for two Starship orbital launches.