SpaceX: a space manufacturing revolution?

SpaceX SPace Manufacturing Revolution
Credits: Pixabay

On May 30th 2020, fans were glued to their screens while watching the SpaceX Mission Demo 2 in live streaming. Why so much interest? It was certainly not the first space mission with a crew on route 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 improved technologies compared to previous missions. For example, from the internal images of the Crew Dragon Capsule, the first thing that captures our attention is the human-machine interface compared to the Apollo and Space Shuttle’s cockpits: simple touch screens replace levers and buttons.

Differenze nel cockpit di Crew Dragon e Missioni Apollo e Space Shuttle
Credits: Michal Malewicz, Medium

However, the real revolution that Musk and his team are implementing is the cost of space access. The next figure shows the cost per kilo of the Falcon 9 compared to the previous launchers:

Costo di accesso allo spazio del Falcon 9
Credits: Reddit

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 the 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 back 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 mentioned before, 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 one satellite, probe or spaceship, so we can say that in the peak of greatest space activity, just under 150 satellites were produced each year.

Numero di lanci all'anno
Fonte: https://www.statista.com/statistics/896699/number-of-satellites-launched-by-year/

However, 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 remote sensing, telecommunications 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 with each other.

We could define this new technology by using a popular term, Space Internet of Things (S-IoT). The Internet of Things is a 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.

SpaceX and StarLink

SpaceX is working on the Starlink project, which aims to create a low-cost, high-speed global satellite Internet, capable of reaching 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 will be 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.

It is not difficult to imagine 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

At the beginning of the 20th 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.

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 sattellite constellations will force manufacturers to adapt their production systems. As we have seen in the previous chart, currently 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 system in this case is much more similar to the low-volume customization typical of the first industrial revolution.

However, with constellations the scenario changes: development time will decrease as will the production cost due to the greater competitiveness required, while higher standardization will be necessary at equal quality level. We have already witnessed such a phenomenon in the automotive business more than a century ago.

In this case, we are betting that Elon Musk, thanks to the skills acquired with Tesla, will lead this revolution.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that May 30th, 2020 will be remembered as the beginning of a new era in space flight, and it is very likely that SpaceX will play a fundamental role.

Cheaper missions involving satellite constellations will impact heavily on how business will be done 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, cost and increasing quality at the same time.

A series of interesting challenges await us.

Stay tuned.