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Shotwell and Space Lasers

On Monday, 24 August, SpaceX’s President/Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell felt the need to explain why SpaceX hasn’t had a Starlink mission since late May. Her response seemed to be taken from the playbook of Georgia’s Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene in 2018 when she suggested the cause of the wildfires in the West: It’s the fault of space lasers.

Taking a page from Marjorie Tayor Greene

Methinks the SpaceX Lady Doth Protest Too Much

At the 36th Annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Shotwell participated in a panel discussion about the pros and cons of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology. She volunteered that SpaceX has ‘paused’ the Starlink program. She said that the company has been struggling to launch Starlink missions because “…we wanted the next set to have the laser terminals on them…” 

This panel discussion was not to discuss why SpaceX has not launched a Starlink mission in three months (the last Starlink launch was 26 May) and considering the pain that the company goes through to craft their message, the acknowledgment of the problem and its cause, was not accidental. SpaceX is aware that their lack of appearance on the launch pad is not going unnoticed. 

“…Better-Than-Nothing Beta Service…”

Shotwell spent a good portion of her time on the panel offering excuses for SpaceX’s underperforming Starlink internet service. She noted that the beta program has been nothing to brag about, stating for those that hadn’t tried it, “…we’ve rolled out better-than-nothing beta service…”

Lowering expectations while patting themselves on the back is a strategy that SpaceX has developed into a fine art. The occasional self-deprecating comment to disarm any question of overstating the capabilities of their programs in the past or shortfalls in what they promised has won over many who see SpaceX as the darlings of space exploration.

Facts Ignored By Shotwell

Shotwell could have given several reasons for the three-month lag in SpaceX launches; however, her comments raise several questions about what is really happening with the company and Starlink.

One:  Lack of Flight-Ready Boosters

As of 1 July, SpaceX had eight usable boosters (1049, 1051, 1058, 1060, 1061, 1062, 1063, and 1067.) One of those boosters (1051) had completed the design limit of ten flights, but SpaceX mastermind Elon Musk had stated that implied that they would not refurbish boosters beyond the ten flights and would fly them until they break.

All of those boosters had flown a mission in either May or June. The average turnaround time for a Block 5 booster in 2021 is 95 days or roughly three months. Twice SpaceX’s turnaround time for a booster was 27 days; however, occurred early in the year. The turnaround time in the May and June missions all exceeded 60 days.

In addition, two of the boosters (1049 and 1051) were moved to Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) after their last flight. This added to the turnaround time.

Based on the turnaround history for SpaceX’s boosters, it would be extremely unlikely that they could have had any boosters ready for launch in July even though they tentatively scheduled booster 1049 to launch on a polar orbit launch for the Starlink satellite system.

Shotwell’s comment about the delay may be targeted toward that flight and the next polar orbit flight (Booster 1051?) from VSFB. It does not explain the total absence of all SpaceX launches in July and most of August.

Two:  Cheap Lasers Causing Problems?

In April of this year, Shotwell explained that the first prototype lasers had been too expensive and they were going with cheaper lasers for the next Starlink satellites.

The first ones that we flew were very expensive. The second round of technology that we flew was less expensive,” she said…A third generation of laser intersatellite links will start flying “in the next few months…being “much less expensive” than earlier versions.

Shotwell quoted in SpaceNews

Perhaps cheaper lasers are not a better solution?

Three:  Shotwell’s Credibility Gap

The Chief Operations Officer is either not always well informed or she is prone to exaggeration. In either case, she is not the most credible source of information on SpaceX. 

In May of 2019, she boasted that SpaceX would have three to seven Starlink missions and 18 to 21 other missions for 2019. For all of 2019, SpaceX had only two Starlink missions and eleven other missions for a total of thirteen. She projected twice the number of launches than SpaceX actually had in 2019…and she did it five months into the year.

Rocket launches are not a plan-on-a-Monday-launch-on-a-Friday type scenario. They involve years of planning and coordination with multiple players before the rocket engines ignite. Someone that is well informed should be able to know where each mission is in the process and how many of those missions will be ready for launch in the next few months. As Chief OPERATIONS Officer, it would seem her job would involve having a realistic idea of what was feasible in the current year.

In September of the same year, she said she hoped for 24 Starlink launches in 2020. SpaceX had only 14.

Four:  Starlink is a White Elephant Waiting to Die

While SpaceX continues to press the magic of Starlink’s future, the reality is that it is costing them big money to keep putting up satellites that can only be characterized as “better than nothing.”

Doing The Math

Currently, they have launched 28 missions resulting in about 1,700 Starlink satellites in orbit. The full constellation will be as many as 42,000 according to FCC documents. Each satellite has a lifespan of five years. That means that every five years SpaceX will have to replace all 42,000 satellites in the constellation.

Currently, the Falcon 9 can carry 60 satellites at a time. So, to replace the entire constellation every five years SpaceX will have to launch 700 Starlink missions every five years. That’s 140 launches every year or 11 launches per month to replace the expired satellites. 

SpaceX’s response to this is that they hope to launch as many as 400 satellites per mission on the Starship booster. That brings the numbers down but it is still will require 105 Starship missions every five years or 21 launches per year just to maintain the Starlink system. This doesn’t include the ongoing cost of the ground support systems.

The numbers just don’t add up. This is a system that will cost billions to operate and maintain even if they can improve the quality of the better than nothing service. 

To Be Fair

Shotwell didn’t necessarily lie about the reasons for the pause in Starlink launches. She mentioned lasers and a shortage of oxygen as the reasons for the three-month pause. Those excuses may be valid; however, Starlink’s problems are bigger than lasers or a lack of oxygen…but Shotwell doesn’t talk about that because it might end their flying Starlink circus.