SpaceX has begun installing the first of many fuel storage tanks at the first launch facilities in South Texas – a largely common and expected step made extraordinary by the fact that these tanks will be expanded from Starship parts.
Marked “GSE” for ground support equipment, the first signs of the self-built storage tanks began to appear at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory less than two months ago in mid-February. A few weeks later, the first of these cryogenic storage tanks from SpaceX to the launch site for installation (and insulation), while at least two other tanks are well on their way to completion.
While a few ground-star tanks may look like a distraction in the scope of a program to build the world̵
Simply put, rocket propellant storage – even for extremely cold cryogenic liquids such as those used by SpaceX – is a thorough solved the problem. There are many commercial suppliers, and industrial demand for virtually identical tanks is far higher, which further reduces commercial tank costs, even for those with niche use cases thanks to economies of scale. For SpaceX’s purposes, large discounts can be secured, given that the company will need to buy around three to four dozen commercial sleeves (COTS) 100,000 liter tanks to deliver a firing range with enough goods for two back-to-back launches of Starship and Super Heavy.
The first launch feature – which SpaceX seems to be working towards – will likely allow the company to launch test flights (or perhaps Starlink launches) immediately upon completion. However, this initial ability would not be sufficient for ambitious missions to Mars, the Moon or higher orbits around the Earth; where one Starship needs to be quickly filled with 3-10+ tankers. A launch system that is capable of supporting 5-10 back-to-back launches (optimally every few hours) will require many times more fuel storage.
The bottom line is that for the original goal of two (or so) launches between deliveries, SpaceX can probably acquire the few dozen new storage tanks needed for a few million dollars apiece for a total cost likely between $ 50 million and $ 100 million. Instead, SpaceX has decided to design and build its own fuel storage tanks. More importantly, it seems that the GSE tanks SpaceX has already begun to build appear to be almost identical to Starships.
In other words, SpaceX effectively takes identical rocket parts, adapts quite a handful of these parts and turns what could have been a rocket into a fuel storage tank. This is important because compared to all other rockets in history, even including SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be about the same as hiring Vincent van Gogh to paint orbital lines.
Ever since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite structures to stainless steel, Starship has always aimed to be radically different than any big rocket before it. Crucially, using raw steel, the CEO imagined that SpaceX would be able to build Starships quite easily and for pennies on the dollar alongside even SpaceX’s exceptionally affordable Falcon 9. Over the past 18 months, it has become clear that SpaceX has built a factory capable of launching one or two massive steel rockets per month and is willing to ship at least four or five of these Starship prototypes for anything other than guaranteed failure to collect data and iterative improvement.
Technically, the most logical conclusion would be that Musk was right, and that SpaceX has quickly developed the ability to build steel rockets that are larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps only $ 5 million or less each. However, SpaceX also increases in the order of $ 1-2B in venture capital annually, so that they can technically afford the cost of extremely expensive Starship prototypes if the company was confident that there was a way to cut those costs and reach the targets needed for that the rocket should be economically sensible.
Now the existence of self-built fuel storage tanks is almost identical to airworthy Starship routes, but guarantees that SpaceX is already building Starships for a few million dollars each – and possibly much less. More than a year ago, Musk said that SpaceX already built the Raptor engines that will drive Starship and Super Heavy for less than $ 1 million each and worked to mass-produce a simpler variant for less than $ 250,000. Beyond engines and primary designs, the Starship hardware is fairly simple, ranging from Tesla-derived engines, basic flaps and landing legs to frequent pressure vessels (COPV) and wires. SpaceX has managed the extraordinary cost efficiency despite the fact that Boca Chica is still not close to the level of volume production Musk is focusing on, which means that there is still far more efficiency waiting to be realized.
For now, with virtually no re-tools and exactly the same assembly line, SpaceX’s South Texas rocket factory is busy throwing out massive firing tanks, one of which is already preparing for installation, while two more speeds towards completion. All in all, it appears that SpaceX is preparing the basis for seven 9-meter-wide (30-foot), 27.5-meter-high (90-foot) starship-derived tanks that will be able to store ~ 2,200 tons (4.9 million pounds) of subcooled liquid methane in three tanks. and 737,300 tons (16.1 million pounds) of liquid oxygen in the other four tanks – enough for two rounds of Starship.