Adventures In Deep Space

A blog about turning our "crazy" big idea to transform deep space exploration into a real company (click on header above to view this blog's home page)

My Crazy 'Big Idea'

August 18, 2021 — Thomas Leavitt

Excerpted from Inside Elon Musk’s plan to build one Starship a week—and settle Mars

“If you’re just trying to make one of something, it can all basically just be made by the engineering team,” he said. “But if you want to actually make something at reasonable volume, you have to build the machine that makes the machine, which mathematically is going to be vastly more complicated than the machine itself. The thing that makes the machine is not going to be simpler than the machine. It’s going to be much more complicated by a lot. Things need to be translated into instructions that the average person can understand. You can’t have somebody with an engineering master’s degree from MIT hand-making every single part. It’s not possible. There just aren’t enough. MIT’s not graduating enough people.”

Musk is talking about building Starship here (the near term goal being to build 1-2 a week, and lower the cost of manufacturing each to $5 million), but this article inspired me to ask... why not apply the same logic to satellites--far smaller, far less complex machines that don't need to be human rated, and can tolerate the occassional failure (ala Starlink and 60,000 satellites)? Right now, the current paradigm for deep space exploration is hand built, single purpose machines, built for one mission. This results in most planets of the solar system (if they're lucky) being visited once in a generation, if not once in a lifetime.

I was born in 1972. In my lifetime, Mercury has been visited twice: by the Mariner 10 (1973) and MESSENGER missions (2011). Uranus and Neptune have been visted once: by Voyager 2 (in 1986 and 1989, respectively). New Horizons visited Pluto in 2015. There's a new mission in the works for Mercury, but none for any of the others. Mighty Saturn with its magnificent rings has only been visited once since the days of Pioneer and Voyager, by Cassini (from 2004 to 2017) and nothing concrete has been approved as a follow up. Even nearby Venus has only been visted twice by dedicated purpose missions since Magellan in 1990 (Venus Express, 2006 and Akatsuki, 2010).

Acknowledging that "deep space" is HARD, and the requirements for a mission to Mercury vary vastly from one to Jupiter, or Pluto... This is nuts. We should have multiple probes around every object of interest in the solar system, with more on the way. This is well within our technical capacity, and soon, one of the biggest obstacles to exploration beyond Earth's orbit, launch costs, are going to fall dramatically, as SpaceX (and other companies) build heavy lift vehicles designed to get humans and other equipment to the Moon and Mars. I'm convinced that, this will have an equally revolutionary impact on the exploration of deep space as the dramatically lowered cost of launch to Low Earth Orbit has had on commercial and non-commercial satellite deployment, and that being "ready to launch", in volume, when this becomes a tangible reality will create a huge competitive advantage.

Tags: idea, vision, market