SpaceX, The Elon Musk-let space exploration company, the first commercial company capable of bringing people to low earth orbit.
Besides having achieved feats once deemed impossible under Elon’s leadership. Such as launching, landing and reusing the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. Let us look at one possible future endeavor SpaceX could achieve that at this time seems impossible or most unlikely, to say the least.
That feat would be the construction of a space station in low earth orbit with artificial gravity created by centrifugal forces with a completion date at around 2035.
(360-degree render of space station inspired by space odyssey 2001)
Now in this article, we are not going into the reasons why Elon Musk might want such a station or why he doesn’t. This thought experiment is solely to see if it would be in the realm of possibilities and in the scope of SpaceX’s future capabilities.
First, we need to determine the most challenging part of constructing such a space station with artificial gravity of this magnitude.
The primary challenge in our opinion would be to get that large amount of mass to LEO (low earth orbit) in the most economical way possible.
Luckily Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX are working on this first problem almost 24/7.
It is expected that by 2022 SpaceX will have their Starship Cargo/tanker version operational. Later the Starship Crew will follow. Starship cargo will initially be able to bring 100 metric tons to LEO with the prospect of 150 metric tons when Starship is fully optimized, probably 1 to 2 years after the first operational version flew.
So technically already by around 2023, the first parts of the station could be brought up to LEO to start construction. But let us not get ahead of ourselves, also because this approach would likely not be Elon’s approach.
Let’s sum up the different biggest phases that are needed for such a project to come to fruition.
Research & Development
The first phase of any large scale construction project, be it on earth or not, is the research & development phase, R & D for short.
This phase often takes a long time as many technologies and materials need to be tested before being approved for use in the construction phase.
With collaboration with existing companies & agencies such as NASA, this process could be accelerated by means of sharing of expertise and knowledge. However, in this case, we assume SpaceX is collaborating with Nasa and other governments and commercial entities which could allow this process to only take around 2 to 3 years.
Manufacturing the station parts
By the time the R & D and design phase is all but finished.
SpaceX could have already constructed largely automated manufacturing lines for the different parts of the station, such as for radiation shield panels, structural beams, windows, thermal insulation plates, water/oxygen tanks, interior walls and a whole bunch of other parts that need to be built in large quantities.
Elon Musk already has the expertise to build such a manufacturing line, he could even use the Tesla factory for this with modified robotics and retrained human workforce. Once the manufacturing lines are optimized for the different parts. It would at the most take 4 to 6 months to have all the construction parts ready, checked and approved.
Transport to LEO
The most important prerequisite for starting such an undertaking is a sizable Starship Cargo fleet. Perhaps even around 20 would be enough for this task if each is capable of flying once daily. So let’s assume that the station’s final empty mass will be around 350K metric tons. Which is around 100 times heavier than our current international space station(ISS). With this very rough estimate, it would take around 300 Starship cargo flights to get the empty mass up in LEO.
As the station consists of pre-manufactured parts here on earth, some kind of orbital assembly platform will also need to be constructed in LEO in order to use all the construction parts and turn it into the station we desire to see in our future. The orbital assembly station does not need to be very large. It’s just a platform where Starship cargo docks and unloads the parts which are then taken by robotic arms and transported to its final mounting position. Probably an assembly ring would be constructed the size of the habitat ring on which robotics arms with different mechanical and welding tools could be mounted to travel along the ring. These robotic arms could be controlled by human technicians on earth. The SpaceX Starlink satellite network could be used to provide a low latency bandwidth connection between the ground station and the assembly station. This way the technicians on earth could just put on 360 virtual reality glasses and operate the robotic arms and the tools as if they were in space themselves. This method of remote working will save a lot on costs and would actually increase orbital assembly speed tenfold as many more remote technicians could work at the same time.
After the assembly of the station is completed. It would still need many additional Starship cargo launches to get it operational. Hundreds of flights would be needed to supply it with water and the elements to create oxygen. It would also need fuel for orbital adjustments due to atmospheric drag.
Before any humans come to eagerly test the artificial gravity. The common items need to be present, such as beds, utensils, food supply, and the ingredients to start a decent-sized orbital farm that can supply the stationauts with much-desired fruits and vegetables. Even small livestock could be brought up like chickens and the likes. Let’s just hope a chickens head would not keep trying to orient itself according to earth’s gravity, cause that would just look weird.
Now let’s talk about how much all of this could possibly cost.
Estimated costs of construction
To calculate the costs of construction of this orbital behemoth is like estimating how many habitable planets there are in our galaxy, you can give a ballpark estimate which could be off by a very large margin.
However, here is my on a napkin estimation of the total costs of construction.
A rough estimate of 1000 Starship cargo launches would be needed.
At 2 to 5 million per launch this would amount to around 4 billion $.
Research & Development:
This phase involves the participation of a highly educated and expensive workforce over a long duration of time so I estimate the R & D costs to be between 7 – 10 billion $ Perhaps this could be less when advanced AI and machine learning are involved for material testing, simulation and more.
Manufacturing factory/orbital assembly:
I estimate the costs of setting up the manufacturing line and orbital assembly platform at around 2 to 3 billion $
Materials & resources:
The estimated cost for the raw building materials for the main station as well as the material resources needed to make it operational could be around 5 billion $.
So a guestimated total of 18 – 20 billion.
This amount makes no sense with our current understanding of the cost of space exploration. Especially considering the ISS costed 150 billion $ to build and launch. You would think that such a station would cost a hundred times more than the ISS.
But since SpaceX would be at the helm of affairs for this future project,
we have to think in Elon Musk metrics in terms of the costs of space transportation and development. Remember that SpaceX launched its first rocket to orbit successfully in September 2008. It will probably launch successfully Starship cargo in 2022. That is a 14 years difference in which the company achieved almost impossible feats of engineering. With such an almost exponential rate of technological improvement, it is not unthinkable that SpaceX could achieve to build such a space station in LEO.
The question of funding
So if we assume that the total cost of the whole project is around 20 billion. Where is SpaceX gonna get that money? Well from literally everywhere. With such construction costs, if true. Many governments around the world, as well as companies, would be lining up for the change to invest in such a project. Since the potential revenue that could be made from such an orbital platform are substantial, to say the least.
First off, small sections of the station could be rented out to governments around the world for orbital research and also just to have a presence in space. Also, big companies could do the same.
The potential for space tourism would also be substantial.
This station could house around 1000 people at any given time. 300 – 500 spots could be reserved for space tourism alone. If each pays around 1 million for a 1-week stay, that would mean around 0.5 billion revenue from tourism in just a single week.
According to Google, there are around 36 million millionaires on this planet, I am sure a few percents would have the money and the desire to have the ultimate off-world vacation.
Whether we will ever see such incredible space structures in our lifetime remains to be seen. But what we have seen is that a man with a decent level of IQ and determination is capable of achieving things that most of us deemed impossible just a few years ago. Perhaps it won’t be Elon Musk who would take on such a project, after all, he is laser-focused on Mars and won’t let any other project get in the way of that. Someone else could take on this idea and SpaceX could simply provide the Transport part. Or perhaps when general artificial intelligence arrives on the world stage, we could simply command it to build a few dozens such space stations and solve world hunger while its at it.