SpaceX is planning for Earth-to-Earth cargo deliveries with its upcoming Starship, a new user guide revealed this week.
The company is developing the fully-reusable stainless steel rocket at its Boca Chica facility in Texas, with a view to using it for missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. It's able to lift more than 100 tons or 100 people into space, and its liquid oxygen and methane fuel make it ideal for traveling to planets and refueling with the planet's resources.
But it's not just sending astronauts to the edges of the Solar System where Starship could shine. In the user guide, SpaceX outlines a cargo configuration for rapid deliveries:
Starship was designed from the onset to be able to carry more than 100 tons of cargo to Mars and the Moon. The cargo version can also be used for rapid point-to-point Earth transport. Various payload bay configurations are available and allow for fully autonomous deployment of cargo to Earth, Lunar, or Martian surfaces with one example shown in Figure 7.
The idea could transform how people move cargo around the world. With Starship expected to offer trips around the world in just under an hour, it could mean ordering a vital component and getting it shipped to a building project in just a few hours. Perhaps the Starship could fuel the first trans-continental pizza delivery, made fresh in Naples and delivered straight to Los Angeles.
It's the sort of speed and distance that would put Amazon Prime's 30-minute drone deliveries to shame.
It could offer a way to expand Starship's capabilities even further. When CEO Elon Musk first unveiled the ship at a September 2017 conference under the name "BFR," he explained that it was designed to replace vehicles like Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon with a fully-reusable rocket for both cargo and people. Beyond exploring planets like Mars and beyond, Musk also explained it could be used for Earth-to-Earth trips.
These manned Earth trips wouldn't be pretty. Where a space-bound mission would fit 100 people in comfortable cabins, these Earth missions would pack 1,000 people into a configuration Musk compared to Space Mountain. The time savings, however, could radically transform humanity's conception of time and travel:
- Los Angeles to New York (3,983 kilometers): from five hours, 25 minutes by plane to just 25 minutes with Starship.
- Bangkok to Dubai (4,909 kilometers): from six hours, 25 minutes by plane to just 27 minutes by Starship.
- Tokyo to Singapore (5,350 kilometers): from seven hours, 10 minutes by plane to just 28 minutes by Starship.
- London to New York (5,555 kilometers): from seven hours, 55 minutes by plane to just 29 minutes by Starship.
Musk has suggested that while the port would likely be located around 20 miles offshore for noise concerns, hyperloop could plug the gap. These 700 mph, vacuum-sealed pod transit systems have yet to be built, but SpaceX has held a series of student-led design competitions at its Hawthorne campus using a test track.
The Starship could boost the speed of sending cargo around the world. Boeing's 747 Dreamlifter, by comparison, only travels at a speed of Mach 0.82, similar speed to the standard Dreamliner passenger jet. It does, however, offer a maximum takeoff weight of 364 tons.
Speed may not be the only factor in choosing how to deliver cargo. Musk has suggested that a Starship fight could cost around $2 million per launch, around four times more expensive than flying a Boeing jet. That price will take cargo to space, and it's unclear how the prices may differ for Earth-bound trips.
SpaceX wouldn't be the first to focus on speed for its new flight system. Concorde, the supersonic jet developed by manufacturers in the United Kingdom and France, promised flights from New York to London of around three hours. Baggage holds were relatively small and space was limited, and a freighter version never took flight. Over the years, the aircraft became unprofitable and was ultimately shelved in 2003.
Starship has more planned than just inter-Earth flights, meaning its success doesn't solely rest on these inter-Earth missions. But the Concorde experience shows that cutting flight times isn't the only factor in determining a project's future.