In this article, we are going to try to determine which of the two space transport vehicles is more crucial to the success of SpaceX and space exploration in general. The Starship crewed version or the cargo version?
Now you can argue the reason why this would matter. After all, both serve different purposes and also complement each other as well.
They are also obviously the same rocket except for the upper part being modeled to its need to either carry human passengers or cargo.
However, one has weaknesses the other does not possess and visa versa.
Starship Crew has the strength of being able to carry passengers. Maximum around a hundred of them to different destinations around the inner solar system. This fact makes the Starship crew more the focus of attention in the media and in the mind of space nerds alike.
But, this apparent human carrying strength is also its greatest weakness.
Let me explain.
As the Starship crew is capable of carrying around 100 passengers per flight, it is also capable of potentially losing those 100 passengers in a tragic accident.
Of course, we pray this will never happen in the future of space travel. However, ruling out this catastrophic possibility is also not very realistic when looking at the history of human spaceflight.
If such a tragic event were to occur, it could ground the Starship crew for many months perhaps even a couple of years before we are confident again that it would not happen a second time. This would devastate the SpaceX human spaceflight program and even Nasa.
However, if an unscheduled disassembly were to happen to the cargo version of Starship, the situation would be very different. In this scenario, SpaceX would simply investigate the problem, correct it and Starship cargo would fly again. Perhaps potential customers with high-value cargo might have some doubts using Starship cargo, but the cheap launch costs probably outweigh choosing for a much more expensive expendable rocket from another space launch provider.
Of course, if an accident were to happen to any variant of Starship, the Starship crew would also be grounded, but the mental and emotional impact would not be as severe since no loss of life occurred.
Also, in the short term Starship cargo will be very crucial to the survival of the Starship program. Since this variant of Starship will be used substantially to launch Starlink satellites once it is flight-proven and has a decent safety record. SpaceX will use the Starlink satellite network to provide worldwide high-speed internet to even the most remote locations on the planet.
This will enable them to gain the funds needed to establish a permanent presence on Mars and later expand it to a self-sustaining city on the red planet.
Starship cargo will be continuously needed to carry Starlink satellites to low earth orbit as these satellites only have a lifetime of 3 to 5 years before they are deorbited and burn up in the atmosphere. It is estimated that Starship cargo would be able to carry up to 400 Starlink satellites per flight enabling huge launch cost savings over Falcon 9’s current capacity of 60 satellites per launch.
So in a purely financial and practical sense, Starship cargo seems more crucial than Starship crew in the short term. Also because SpaceX could still engage in human spaceflight with Falcon 9’s Dragon V2 if Starship crew was to be grounded for any reason. Of course in the long run Starship crew is important for crewed missions beyond earth’s orbit and the Moon. For colonizing mars and perhaps space tourism.
We hope that nothing bad will happen with any rocket launch, be it SpaceX or other space launch service providers. No one likes such huge setbacks to their own space program. But they have happened and will also likely happen in the future as we are all human and make mistakes. Perhaps if we let artificial intelligence do all the work of designing, building and launching rockets, the chance of malfunctions could be decreased by an order of magnitude. But then we might run the risk of this artificial intelligence colonizing the universe and conquering alien civilizations, which would really be a pity since I would like to have a chance to share a good cup of tea with some alien space nerds.