SpaceX has begun installing the first of several propellant storage tanks at its first launch facilities in South Texas – a largely common and anticipated move that is extraordinary in that these tanks will be built out of Starship parts.
The “GSE” mark for ground support equipment, the first signs of these self-built storage tanks began to appear at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship plant less than two months ago in mid-February. A few weeks later, the first of these cryogenic storage tanks from the SpaceX brand is off to the launch site for installation (and insulation), while at least two additional tanks are well on their way to completion.
While a few ground power tanks may seem like a distraction in the scope of a program tasked with building the world̵
In short, storage of rocket propellant – even for extremely cold cryogenic liquids such as those used by SpaceX – is a thoroughly solved problem. There are several commercial suppliers and the industrial demand for virtually identical tanks is much higher, which further lowers the commercial tank costs, even for those with niche utility cases thanks to economies of scale. For SpaceX’s purposes, large discounts could be secured as the company had to buy about three to four dozen commercial holster (COTS) 100,000 gallon tanks to supply a launch pad with enough goods for two back-to-back launches of Starship and Super Heavy.
The initial launch feature – which SpaceX seems to be working towards – will likely allow the company to start orbital refueling of test flights (and perhaps Starlink will start) immediately after completion. However, this initial capacity would not be sufficient for ambitious missions to Mars, the Moon, or higher Earth orbits; where a Starship was to be quickly refueled with 3-10+ tanker tanks. A launch facility capable of supporting 5-10 back-to-back launches (optimally every few hours) will require many times more fuel storage.
The point is, for the original goal of two (or so) launches between commodity supplies, SpaceX could probably acquire the few dozen new storage tanks it needs for a few million dollars apiece at a total cost probably between $ 50 million and $ 100 mio. Instead, SpaceX has decided to design and build its own fuel storage tanks. Even more markedly, it seems that the GSE tank SpaceX has already begun to build almost identical to Starships.
In other words, SpaceX effectively takes identical rocket parts, easily adapts a handful of these parts, and converts what could have been a rocket into a propellant storage tank. This is important because compared to all other rockets in history, even with SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be about like 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 unlike any major rocket before it. Crucial to, using crude steel, the CEO imagined that SpaceX would be able to build Starships fairly easily and for pennies on the dollar next to even SpaceX’s unusually affordable Falcon 9. In the last 18 months, it has become clear , that SpaceX has built a factory to fight one or two massive steel rockets a month and is willing to send at least four or five of these Starship prototypes for anything other than guaranteed failures for the sake of data collection 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 larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps only $ 5 million. Or less. However, SpaceX also raises in the order of $ 1-2 million in venture capital annually, so they can technically afford to bear the cost of extremely expensive Starship prototypes if the company was convinced that there was a way to reduce those costs and reach measurements. necessary for the rocket to make economic sense.
Now, the existence of self-built fuel storage tanks is almost identical to airworthy Starship aircraft, 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 SpaceX was already building the Raptor engines that will power Starship and Super Heavy for less than $ 1 million. The piece and worked to mass produce a simpler variant for less than $ 250,000. In addition to engines and primary structures, Starship hardware is fairly simple, ranging from Tesla-derived engines, basic flaps and landing legs to shelf pressure vessels (COPVs) and wires. SpaceX has managed the extraordinary cost-effectiveness despite the fact that Boca Chica is still not close to the level of volume production that Musk is aiming for, which means that there are still far more efficiencies waiting to be realized.
Currently, with almost no recycling and the exact same assembly line, SpaceX’s rocket factory in South Texas is busy throwing massive tanks into the launch pad – one of which is already preparing for installation, while two more speeds towards completion. All in all, SpaceX appears to be preparing foundations for seven 9-meter-wide (30-foot), 27.5-meter-high (90-foot) spaceship-derived tanks that should be able to store ~ 2,200 tons (4.9 million pounds) subcooled liquid methane in three tanks. and ~ 7,300 tons of liquid oxygen in the other four tanks – enough for two revolving Starship launches.