Did SpaceX start a space manufacturing revolution?
On May 30th 2020, fans were glued to their screens to watch the SpaceX Mission Demo 2 in live streaming. Why so much interest? It was certainly not the first space mission with crew on board to the International Space Station, nor will it be the last.
SpaceX promises to revolutionize the business of the space sector in different aspects, many of which have already been illustrated in several articles. However, the impact that this private company will have in the space manufacturing sector will be disruptive.
Crew Dragon: what differences?
SpaceX uses several improving technologies compared to previous missions. For example, from the internal images of the Crew Dragon Capsule, the first thing that capture our attention is the human-machine interface compared to the Apollo and Space Shuttle’s cockpits: simple touch screens replace levers and buttons.
However, the real revolution that Musk and his team is implementing is the cost of space access. Next figure shows the cost per kilo of the Falcon 9 compared to the previous launchers:
As you can easily see from the image, Space Shuttle associated cost is almost 20 K$/kg with a cost per flight of 450 M$, whereas for Falcon 9 the cost drops to almost 2 K$/kg (-90%) with an overall cost of 44 M$ per flight (-90%) with same payload capacity. One of the main reasons is associated with the launcher reusability: while before the launchers were substantially disposable, the Falcon 9 is able to restore its attitude and land again in a vertical position, without any ditching and recovery . From the perspective of attitude control, this operation is extremely complicated and for this reason it has been preceded by several attempts and failures. Some of them are shown in a video published by SpaceX:
How many launches per year?
As we said, the entry barriers to space are historically very high. The following chart shows the number of launches per year since 1957 (Sputnik I). On average, each launch corresponds to a satellite, probe or spaceship, so we can say that in the peak of greater space activity, just under 150 satellites were produced each year.
But unlike the 60s and 70s in which we witnessed the space race between the US and USSR, in recent years new satellites have become necessary for several applications such as for remote sensing, telecommunication and geolocation.
According to an article published by MIT Technology Review in June 2019, the number of orbiting satellites was about 2000. But from 2025 around 1100 satellites are expected to be launched every year, due to an increasing use of satellites constellations, which offer numerous advantages in terms of performance, cost and scalability.
But what is a satellite constellation? It is a network made up of small satellites placed in orbit and able to communicate each other.
We could define this new technology by using a popular term, Space Internet of Things (S-IoT). The Internet of Things is the set of devices of a different nature, equipped with connectivity and capable of interacting and exchanging information extremely quickly. When dealing with industrial devices, we are talking about the Industrial Internet of Things (or IIoT). As you can see, the scenarios change, but the direction that technology is taking is very similar: small and low-cost devices able to communicate quickly to reconfigure themselves according to the needs required. A space manufacturing revolution?
SpaceX and StarLink
SpaceX is working on the Starlink project which aims to create a low-cost, high-speed global satellite Internet capable of covering even hard-to-access communities. The satellites will be deployed on three different altitudes within a low Earth orbit (LEO). The satellites will weigh approximately 200 kilograms each and launched in batches of 60. Each batch is capable of delivering up to 1 terabit per second of bandwidth, enough to transmit 4K video to approximately 40,000 people simultaneously. In total, the launch of 12,000 satellites is planned between now and 2027. A space manufacturing revolution in terms of throughput.
It is not difficult to think that with such a low cost of accessing space, other global companies are also gearing up to exploit this opportunity to their advantage, consequently increasing the annual production of satellites.
Elon Musk like Henry Ford
Can Elon Musk start a space manufacturing revolution similar to what happened in automotive?
At the beginning of the twentieth century Henry Ford revolutionized the way of making cars forever. In fact, Ford made the purchase of cars accessible even to the less wealthy classes by applying the principles of Taylorism to the assembly line, exploiting the economy of scale and creating an efficient production system.
Similarly, it is fair to say that Elon Musk is carrying out a similar revolution in the space business. As we have seen, the Falcon 9 reduces the access to space cost by 90% compared to the Space Shuttle. Furthermore, the exponential growth of sattellites constellations will force manufacturers to adapt their production system. As we have seen in the previous graph, to date the launch of satellites is around one hundred per year. This number does not justify the implementation of a complex production system: in fact the production system in this case is much more similar to the low-volume customization typical of the first industrial revolution.
But with constellations the scenario changes: development times will decrease as will the cost for satellites due to the greater competitiveness required, while greater standardization will be necessary at equal (if not greater) level of quality. Things already seen in the automotive sector now more than a century ago.
And in this case we bet that Elon Musk, thanks to the skills acquired with Tesla, will be the master. Musk was highly criticized for the massive use of automation on the Tesla S-Series assembly line, only to be right then.
A space manufacturing revolution?
There is no doubt that May 30, 2020 will be remembered as the beginning of a new era in for space flight, and it is very likely that SpaceX will play a fundamental role.
Cheaper missions involving satellite constellations will impact heavily on how to do business in space. Manufacturing companies will have to rethink their production systems, while more and more companies will see the possibility of doing business in space. If the 1960s marked the Moon race, the race to space that we will witness in the upcoming years will be marked by greater accessibility and therefore by greater private intervention. Therefore it will be necessary to change the production approach, thus reducing time and costs and at the same time increasing quality.
A series of interesting challenges await us.
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