Last month, The New Yorker magazine published a story about plans to build a spaceport on Lake Superior in Upper Michigan to launch rockets. The idea was to put the launch facility on the lake to be far enough from local communities to eliminate risk and noise from operating the facility which would serve to launch rockets to low-Earth-orbit.
The story noted that this would make Upper Michigan the next U.S. spaceport joining thirteen others in existence. The author got the number wrong. Today in the United States there are twenty spaceports already operating. The list includes one in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico and Oklahoma, two in Virginia, three in California, four in Texas, and six in Florida. In addition to the Michigan proposal, there are applications to the FDA from Alabama and Maine in what is being described as a “space gold rush.” Some of these facilities are designated for vertical launches only, while others can handle rockets mated to aircraft launching from runways.
Chris Smedley is the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) of Toronto-based Digital Habitats. He describes himself as a combination of technologist and futurist and has worked on Elon Musk’s Carbon XPrize, a four-year contest to create and demonstrate solutions to pull carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently.
Chris’s ambition is to build Aquacities, Starports and Stargates. He wants to launch cargo and passengers on suborbital flights in a bid to replace conventional air travel taking hours with rockets taking minutes. His Earth Starport Network would use offshore sites for his Starports and Stargates. The latter would be refurbished oil-and-gas exploration platforms that should become more abundant as the global economy moves away from its reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
His vision includes a fleet of reusable rockets fueled with methane captured from natural carbon sinks including lakes, and oceans, as well as from industrial capture technologies. The terms he uses to describe the vision come right out of science fiction but are surprisingly realizable in the near future.
The end result would be a Global Starport Network to deliver point-to-point travel at distances starting from as little as 1,000 kilometres, a 10-minute flight, to cargo and passenger delivery anywhere on the planet in less than an hour.
One of the keys to realizing the Global Starport Network is reusability. That’s where Elon Musk and SpaceX’s Starship enter the picture. SpaceX is building its next-generation rocket, the Starship, with 100% reusability in mind. Sometime this year, if all goes well, it will make a maiden orbital test flight. The current SpaceX rocket, the Falcon-9, has demonstrated partial reusability. But the Starship along with its heavy booster autonomous launch vehicle is 100% reusable and designed for quick refuelling and turnarounds when it arrives at a destination. In the upcoming test flight, the heavy booster will return to its Texas launch base while the Starship will reach orbit, then deorbit, and finally make a controlled splashdown in the Pacific near Hawaii. Future flights will have it land at a launchpad.
Another key to the advent of global rocket travel is reconfigurability. A reconfigurable rocket can be used for multiple purposes. How reconfigurable is Starship? When NASA selected it to be the first Artemis Program commercial lunar landing system, the HLS, although the cost was a big factor in awarding the decision to SpaceX, so was the potential of reconfigurability. Starship from the get-go has been designed for multiple purposes.
What NASA wanted was a lunar lander capable of delivering a crew of two and equipment with an Earth-weight payload equivalent of 865 kilograms (1,900 pounds). What they got in a reconfigured Starship HLS isn’t a pickup truck but rather a tractor-trailer in comparison.
Program Manager for SpaceX, Aarti Matthews recently told a space conference audience in Houston, “Starship can land 100 tons on the lunar surface…it’s really hard to think about what that means in a tangible way. One hundred tons is four fire trucks. It’s 100 Moon rovers. My favourite way to explain this to my kids is that it’s the weight of more than 11 elephants.”
He went on to describe the Starship HLS configuration, a lunar lander of “infinite volume” at a cost “in an order of magnitude lower” than any previous technology contracted by NASA for a mission.
Starship is the first rocket technology that eliminates the weight and mass problem that made every kilogram count when the Apollo Program was trying to land a human crew on the Moon. The lunar module was designed without seats and with a skin so thin you could poke a finger through it.
The Starship is steel framed and has an interior capacity that can be reconfigured for multiple purposes: room for passengers, cargo, lunar transportation, equipment for building of a permanent lunar base, and more.
Will the Starship remain the only reusable and reconfigurable choice in the new “space gold rush?” Blue Origin, Rocket Labs, ESA Arianespace, Roscosmos, ISRO, and China’s National Space Administration all are watching what SpaceX is doing and no doubt will make the play to be second to market, and surpass SpaceX in the long term. So it is only a matter of time before the Global Starport Network moves off Chris Smedley’s drawing board to become a reality.