Elon Musk says Starship spaceflights could cost just $2 million

Elon Musk just gave SpaceX fans a glimpse into the company's Starship Mk. 1 rocket.
Image: Darrell Etherington

At the first U.S. Air Force Space Pitch Day, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Lt. General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, that the company’s massive Starship launch system could fly for around $2 million per mission.

The USAF posted two different videos of the 30-minute conversation online. Space Command posted part one of the talk on its Facebook page. The Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) posted part two on its website.

According to SpaceNews, U.S. Air Force leaders also awarded $9 million to 12 winning startups on day one of the two-day pitch event. It took place on November 5 and 6 in San Francisco.

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Musk’s Sage Advice

Musk spoke with Thompson in front of a diverse audience filled with space-focused startups, Air Force Space Command operators and acquisition specialists, government staffers, media personnel, and more.

Thompson prompted the aerospace leader to share his advice, experience, and insight as a former small business owner who now helms two large corporations—Tesla and SpaceX. They addressed topics like company culture, leadership strategy, and how small businesses can grow space partnerships at big companies like SpaceX.

Musk drew some laughter from the crowd when he admitted that he does “zero market research whatsoever” and declared that the upcoming Tesla pickup truck “looks like an armored personnel carrier from the future.”

Attendees chuckled again when he confessed to watching “Space Jam” during his 15 minutes of TV time on the treadmill.

As for offering sage advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, the visionary billionaire reinforced a couple of points multiple times. First, he feels that companies should implement “a reward structure that incents the right behavior.” Second, he thinks that businesses of all sizes should offer “compelling” products or services, or else they shouldn’t exist.

Perhaps most importantly, Musk told hopeful attendees that they shouldn’t “grow a business for the sake of growing a business.” Instead, they should ask themselves, “’What is this important problem that you’re trying to solve that really matters?’ And then go and try to solve that.”

Solving One Big Problem

Near the end of the discussion, Musk shared his thoughts on the most significant problem that the space program is currently facing—having “a fully, rapidly reusable orbital rocket.” He added, “It’s the holy grail.”

The South African native executive seeks to solve the complex issue with SpaceX’s reusable spacecraft. To date, the firm has reused parts of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo capsule. However, much more work needs to be done to fulfill Musk’s vision of making space travel as common as air travel.

“It is absolutely as profound to have a reusable rocket as it is to have reusable transport in all domains: bicycles, aircraft, cars, horses are all reusable,” Musk said.

Starship’s orbital system consists of a 100-passenger spacecraft and a Super Heavy booster. Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to colonize the moon and Mars with frequent future Starship spaceflights.

Musk explained that Starship’s propellant alone would cost about $900,000 to blast it into orbit. “If you consider operational costs, maybe it will be like $2 million.” He added, “This is much less than a tiny rocket. So, it’s something that needs to be made.”

It’s important to remember that the launches cost SpaceX $2 million. Musk didn’t mention what the company will charge customers for a Starship launch. Currently, a Falcon 9 launch costs $62 million versus $90 million for Falcon Heavy.

The Crowded Race to Commercial Space

Many companies are competing with SpaceX to launch satellites and, eventually, humans into space.

For example, Boeing just completed a pad abort test for its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule. Jeff Bezos plans to land astronauts on the moon with Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander by 2024. Likewise, Musk has set his own lofty orbital goals.

During an unveiling of the Starship Mk1 prototype rocket in September, he told a captive live crowd, “This is going to sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months.”

That objective is especially aggressive considering that the Starship rockets are still under construction.

However, SpaceX aims to make history before launching Starship’s maiden voyage. Namely, it will be the first private aerospace company to launch a crewed spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) with its Crew Dragon. The landmark mission will take place as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to hit more reusability milestones during an upcoming Falcon 9 launch. The rocket will carry 60 Starlink satellites into space on November 11. According to Space.com, the mission will mark the fourth time that the company has flown the same first-stage booster.