SpaceX Starships are one of the most powerful rockets ever created. But they are still not enough to get us as far as Mars, which was seemingly pretty clear from the start.
Even getting it beyond Earth’s orbit will likely require numerous refueling stops, courtesy of additional Starships. And pulling all that off while recovering all the spacecraft and their Super Heavy boosters would be even more difficult.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has admitted that SpaceX “may or may not” use “expendable” upper stages to carry even more cargo into Earth’s orbit. This is bad news for reusable rocket fans as the Starship was meant to both exponentially increase the amount of payload we can hurl into space and lower costs by being reusable.
Such a stage would likely take Starship, remove everything extraneous, and reduce its mass as much as possible. Musk has proposed something similar before, noting that SpaceX could develop a “lightened” version of Starship “with no heat shield or fins/legs” for expendable, interplanetary launches.
And also considering the large number of huge rocket stages that are already littering our orbit, this doesn’t add up very well in the picture.
A sharp Twitter user found a mention of an “expendable” Starship configuration that can launch up to 250 metric tons to Earth orbit on SpaceX’s website. That’s more than twice the amount NASA’s Saturn V was designed to lift into low-Earth orbit.
Musk elaborated that the company had not yet made up its mind whether it wants to develop an “expendable upper stage.” And since the company has yet to launch a single Starship into orbit, let alone recover it and its booster, Musk’s answer isn’t shocking.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s multibillion-dollar contract to use Starship to return NASA astronauts to the Moon revolves around a depot ship variant that will store propellant in orbit and cannot return to Earth. The first few Starship Moon landers may also be functionally expendable and only used for one astronaut landing apiece. In short, SpaceX already has extensive plans to build variants of Starship that are either fully expendable or can only be reused in orbit.
Hence it remains to be seen whether the expandable rockets will be discarded in space or be sent back to earth, but one thing is for sure that SpaceX will unlikely be able to recover or reuse each and every one of its spacecraft.