SpaceX’s Starship is unbelievably young for an aerospace technology project. However, in that short time, it has already shown strong promise in developing new markets.
Starship can be successful through the profitable development of any of the following market segments, either alone or in combination: Mega-constellations, microgravity manufacturing, orbital space tourism, deep-space crew-cargo, government mega stations, asteroid mining.
Of these, mega-constellations and deep-space crew-cargo are already close to being proven markets.
If proven, these markets segments have the potential to enable the others.
The Starship program is, almost certainly, the single most disruptive element in the entire astronautics industry, and—assuming the absence of a major disaster, such as a high-impact Kessler event—may well continue to be so for a long time to come.
In 2018 Elon Musk started investing a large amount of funding into Starship — An ultra-high-capacity fully-reusable orbital launch system. While launch-to-orbit services are not unique, the scale of Starship cargo capacity per unit of time and unit of cost is so different from current offerings as to potentially enable completely new customer markets.
Indeed, Starship will likely only make sense financially if these new markets materialise.
Musk has also since persuaded other investors to put money into SpaceX. While SpaceX is not only the Starship development program, it does constitute a large part of the company’s focus.
This gives Starship an IMOCS Score of three.
IMOCS stands for Innovative Market Offering Conditions Scale and measures how far along the development path an innovative offering is in terms of relationships between investors, suppliers and customers.
This analysis of Starship makes heavy use of IMOCS.
High-Capacity, Crew Cargo to Moon Market
In mid-2021, NASA awarded SpaceX the contract to develop a Luna lander version of Starship for the USA’s Artemis program. As part of this contract, Starship will be required to refuel multiple times in orbit to make the longer trip to the Luna surface.
The refuelling process will only be possible with the capabilities of Starship’s own ultra-high-capacity low-cost orbital launch system.
While NASA is only directly buying the Luna Landing system, which is a new addition to the Starship program, their choice of technology indirectly requires Starship’s original purpose as well.
This means that the innovative component of Starship’s orbital launch system now has a customer who was looking for a supplier solution for their specific problem.
A new market segment is under development — the high-capacity, crew cargo to Moon market.
This increases Starship’s IMOCS Score to five.
While we don’t have access to SpaceX’s finances, we are fairly sure the company is investing more into Starship’s development than the Luna lander contract provides in funding.
This stops Starship’s IMOCS Score from increasing any further for the time being.
If Starship reaches profitability and success in delivering crew cargo to the Luna surface, the market segment will have been proven. Starship will then have an IMOC score of seven.
Mega-Constellation Satellite Launch Market
In 2015, SpaceX began development of a separate market offering called Starlink. This offering promised to provide low-latency broadband service, anywhere on Earth, at a price consumers could afford.
To achieve this, Starlink uses thousands of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit — what is now being called a mega-constellation.
While satellite internet is not new, the scale and quality of Starlink is revolutionary for those who live in areas underserved by traditional broadband providers.
Since the launch of the Starlink offering, other companies are actively seeking to enter the market as well.
Mega-constellations do not require the starship orbital launch system to operate. SpaceX has been using its own Falcon 9 launch vehicle to develop the Starlink mega-constellation.
However, this does not change the fact that Starship would change the economics of mega-constellations, almost certainly making them far more profitable than they can currently be.
SpaceX themselves has stated that once Starship is operational, they will use it to launch and maintain their Starlink mega-constellation.
In this instance, SpaceX is both supplier and customer. This gives the mega-constellation satellite launch market segment an IMOCS score of five.
Large-Scale Space Station Launch Market
While the International Space Station has been in operation for over twenty years now, its development has always been constrained by the launch technology available.
Space stations of much larger scale and technological sophistication have permeated popular culture for decades.
This gave the large-scale space station launch market an IMOCS Score of one.
Many feel that such stations could themselves open up new markets, such as microgravity manufacturing, space tourism, and space exploration terminals, as well as massively increase the supply for the already proven market of in-space research.
If the promises for Starship’s launch cadence and cost materialise, it could enable some of these more grandiose space station concepts to be built. These customer markets can themselves be analysed with IMOCS.
In 2021, a company called Orbital Assembly announced plans to build examples of such large-scale space stations in orbit. They are far from the only company investigating this possibility.
This shows the market for large-scale commercial space station development has gained an IMOCS Score of two. Note that orbital launch is a critical part of this development process.
If Orbital Assembly, or any of the other companies investigating these options, achieve adequate funding rounds to achieve key technological milestones, we’ll know the specific market for such space stations will have achieved an IMOCS Score of three.
Once the technology has developed to the point where launch services are required, and the funding is in place, the large-scale space station launch market will have achieved an IMOCS score of five.
In the same year, the Chinese Government put out requests for proposals for the design of a Space Station over one kilometre long — a clear indication of IMOCS score two.
If the Chinese government puts out a request for proposals for the launch capability to create its proposed mega space station, that will be a signal that the large-scale space station launch market has reached an IMOCS Score of four.
Rising up IMOCS to level five does not have to mean the eventual market that develops will be profitable. If the only purpose of Starship was to service SpaceX’s Starlink network, it is uncertain if the investment would be worth it.
However, the more market segments Starship can develop and prove out, the more likely the offering is to reach an IMOCS score of seven across the board. There are currently three such potential market segments, two of which have already reached an IMOCS score of five.
This gives the Starship program an overall IMOCS score of five.
The third market segment, large-scale space station launch, is still in its infancy.
If some of the market segments for such space station development can themselves be proven, that would help eventually translate to an improved IMOCS score for large-scale orbital space station launch.
Therefore, in order to keep abreast of Starship’s market development progress, the following key events should be tracked:
- Funding events for commercial and government space stations
- Innovations in microgravity manufacturing
- Orbital space tourism trends
- Government and commercial contracts awarded to in-space research programs.
- Government programs for deep-space manned missions.
- Mega-constellation internet uptake
- Mega-constellation internet investments
Article last revised — August 2021 | Article next review — August 2022