SpaceX has begun installing its first fuel-powered storage tanks at its first orbital facilities in South Texas – a normal and often expected move made unusual by the fact that these tanks would be built from spacecraft parts.
Labeled “GSE” for ground support equipment, the first signs of self-made storage tanks began appearing at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship plant less than two months ago in mid-February. Weeks later, SpaceX’s first refrigerated storage tanks have been shut down to the launch site for installation (and isolation) while at least two more tanks are on their way to completion.
While a few ground-based starge tanks may seem like a distraction within the scope of a program tasked with building the world’s largest (and fully reusable) rocket, the presence of these tanks is far more important than it might seem at first.
Simply put, rocket fuel storage – even for extremely cold coolants like the ones SpaceX uses – is a Carefully Solved problem. There are many commercial vendors and industrial demand for practically identical cabinets much higher, which reduces commercial cabinet costs even for those with specialized use cases thanks to economies of scale. For SpaceX purposes, substantial discounts can be obtained since the company would need to purchase roughly three to four dozen commercial prefab cabinets (COTS) 100,000 gallons to supply the launch pad with sufficient merchandise for two. The Starship and Super Heavy are back.
This initial launch capability – which SpaceX appears to be working on – will likely allow the company to begin test flights to refuel in orbit (and possibly launch Starlink) immediately upon completion. However, this initial capability would not be sufficient for ambitious missions to Mars, the Moon, or higher Earth orbits; Where one spacecraft needs to quickly refuel by launching 3-10+ tankers. A launch facility capable of supporting 5 to 10 successive launches (optimally with only a few hour interval) will require multiple propellant storage times.
The point is that for the initial goal of launching two (or so) operations between resupply of goods, SpaceX will likely get a few dozen new storage tanks it will need for a few million dollars each at a potential total cost of $ 50 million. And 100 million dollars. Instead, SpaceX decided to design and build its propellant storage tanks. Most importantly, the GSE SpaceX tanks are already under construction and appear nearly identical to the Starships.
In other words, SpaceX takes effectively identical rocket parts, modifies some of those parts a bit, and turns what would otherwise be a rocket into a fuel storage tank. This is important because for all other rockets in history, even including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Heavy tanks, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on the rocket assembly line would be akin to hiring Vincent Van Gogh to paint the lane lines.
Since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite to stainless steel structures, the Starship’s goal has always been to be Radically It differs from any major missile before it. Crucially, using commodity steel, the CEO imagined SpaceX would be able to build Starships fairly easily and in pennies a dollar next to the Hawk 9 from SpaceX at exceptionally affordable rates. In the past 18 months, it has become apparent that SpaceX has built a plant capable of producing one or two massive steel rockets per month, and is ready to send as few as four or five spacecraft prototypes into foolproof failures in order to collect data. And frequent improvement.
Technically, the most reasonable conclusion is that Musk was right and that SpaceX quickly developed the ability to build steel rockets larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for only $ 5 million or less per piece. However, SpaceX also raises $ 1-2 billion in investment capital annually, so they can technically afford the expensive Starship prototypes if the company is confident there is a way to cut those costs and reach the targets needed for the missile to make economic sense. .
Now, having self-made propellant storage tanks is nearly identical to the airframe of the Starship’s airworthy aircraft, but it ensures that SpaceX is actually building the Starships for a few million dollars each – and maybe much less. More than a year ago, Musk said SpaceX was already building Raptor engines that would power Starship and Super Heavy vehicles for less than $ 1 million apiece, and were working on producing a simpler variant for less than $ 250,000. Unlike motors and infrastructure, Starship’s devices are fairly simple and range from Tesla-derived motors, base plates and landing legs to prefabricated pressure vessels (COPVs) and wires. SpaceX has managed this extraordinary efficiency in terms of cost despite the fact that Boca Chica remains close to the volume production level Musk is aiming for, which means there are still more efficiencies waiting to be achieved.
Right now, with virtually no retrofit and the exact same assembly line, SpaceX’s missile plant in South Texas is busy producing massive tanks for its launch pads – one of which is already preparing for installation while two more speeds prepare for expiration. Finally, SpaceX appears to be preparing the foundations for seven tanks derived from the spacecraft 9 meters (30 feet) wide and 27.5 meters (90 feet) long which should be able to store about 2,200 tons (4.9 million pounds) of cryogenic liquid methane in three tanks and 7,300 tons (16.1 million pounds) of liquid oxygen in the other four tanks – enough to launch the orbiting spacecraft.