SpaceX's Starship Can Lift a Lot More Than We Thought

Photo credit: SpaceX
Photo credit: SpaceX

From Popular Mechanics

What’s inside Elon Musk’s quickstart guide to space travel?

Well, mostly it’s technical data, and even that’s more like background information and high-level overviews than how to “use” anything. The concrete takeaways are intended for just one group: “Potential Starship customers can use this guide as a resource for preliminary payload accommodations information.”

In that sense, using a Starship from Musk’s SpaceX company could become the newest form of container shipping. Having a standardized, predictable amount of space across a fleet is exactly what led to the development of cargo containers, which reduced cost across almost all legs of shipping by saving fussy labor to load and unload individual items or boxes. Musk has even used recycled cargo containers in the building of his SpaceX Starship headquarters.

Inverse reported that a Twitter user first noticed the potentially huge payload a Starship can carry into low Earth orbit. A table in the user guide lists 100 tons, but from other math in the table, one can extrapolate that number is more like 150 tons. That means the entire decommissioned Mir space station could be taken up in one launch.

Even for a much higher altitude of orbit, the Starship still purports to carry up to 21 tons. That number is large enough to include virtually all the different satellite models ever launched or the entire Apollo lunar lander unit. And the user guide (seen below) offers a tantalizingly real call to action, like any piece of sales collateral: “For payload specific loads or rideshare loads assessments, contact”

The Starship is one of Musk’s most ambitious and fast-moving projects among a portfolio that includes bewildering ambition and scope already. SpaceX plans to begin commercial flights in 2021, with a moon trip scheduled for 2023. Even if the company can’t hit these goals—and truly, no one knows how the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic will ripple effect into the future—Musk has a track record of both delivering in short time frames and staying flexible and optimistic after the kinds of failures and iterations that all major projects encounter.

For longer trips to the moon and, Musk hopes, eventually Mars, these numbers are less about payload and more about the number of people who can safely travel and be housed. SpaceX says Starship will carry up to 100 people, which is many times more than the current record of just over a dozen people in one spacecraft at one time. If this many people could travel even into low Earth orbit at the same time, the role of space travel in the public imagination would certainly change and become, well, more grounded in reality.

And since Starship is fully reusable, a crew could hypothetically fly up with the pieces of a satellite or space station and assemble it before safely returning to Earth. There has never been a “fleet” of ships of the size Musk has planned for SpaceX, and the possibilities are really exciting.

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