SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took a rare deep dive into the workings of his company’s Starlink broadband satellite operation in Redmond, Wash., today at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Florida.
He also put in a pitch for robotic fighter jets … and for Starfleet Academy.
The discussion of Starlink satellite development came during a nearly hourlong fireside chat with Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
SpaceX’s satellite operation was established five years ago in Redmond, in part because Musk was looking for the sort of engineering expertise that was available at Microsoft and Boeing. “There’s a huge amount of talent in the Seattle area, and a lot of you guys, it seems, don’t want to move to L.A.,” Musk told a crowd of engineers when he announced the satellite project at Seattle Center.
It took years to get the satellites off the ground, and the road wasn’t always smooth. Two prototype satellites were launched in February 2018, but just a few months later, Musk reorganized the Redmond operation. As a result, several of Redmond’s top engineers left SpaceX. Some of them ended up in leading roles for Amazon’s rival satellite effort, known as Project Kuiper.
Like Project Kuiper, the Starlink operation aims to put thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit to provide new avenues for broadband internet access. But Starlink has a head start of several years: SpaceX has launched 300 of the satellites and could begin limited service later this year.
SpaceX and the Air Force have already been testing the partial Starlink network for in-the-air communication under the terms of a $28.7 million contract. And Starlink will come in for more extensive use in April during a live-fire exercise targeting drones and cruise missiles.
The exercise will be run from bases in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida to test the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, which is designed to replace and expand upon the in-air communication capabilities of the military’s JSTARS surveillance airplanes.
In light of Starlink’s military application, it’s no surprise that Thompson asked about Starlink’s status during today’s fireside chat. Here’s how Musk replied:
“Starlink production is going well, actually. That was a hard thing to get right. We had many iterations on the Starlink prototypes. Then, building the Starlink production like was, like, 1,000% harder than designing the satellite to begin with. But it is important to design for manufacture, and have a tight feedback loop between the design of the object and the manufacturing system.
“When you design the object at first, you don’t realize all the parts that are really difficult to manufacture. So having the manufacturing system and the design — you bring those up at the same time, so that you’re actually, at the beginning, making a thing that you know is wrong. But you’re actually figuring out what’s hard to manufacture. That’s the real problem.
“We brought up the Starlink production line before we actually had the design finalized, which was actually the right thing to do. And then we discovered, ‘Oh, there’s all these things in the design that were very difficult to make, so therefore we must change the design.’
“The satellite ended up having the same capability. It just was very easy to make and launch.”
Musk immediately amended that statement, saying that the task of making and launching the satellites is still “sort of hard, but it’s being done.”
He noted that the satellites are now being produced at a rate faster than they can be launched, and that the cost of manufacturing the satellite has dropped below the per-unit cost of transporting them to orbit.
In their current configuration, the Starlink satellites are launched in bunches of 60, and deployed in such a way that they spread out in low Earth orbit and maneuver into their intended orbital positions using krypton ion thrusters. Astronomers have become increasingly worried about the satellite constellation’s effect on night-sky observations. In response, SpaceX says it’s experimenting with technologies that could cut down on the satellites’ glare. However, Musk indicated that SpaceX doesn’t intend to slow down its launch rate. In fact, he expects the rate to increase dramatically once SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket goes into operation.
“The satellite’s in a good situation, and the cost of that satellite will keep coming down as we ramp up rates and make design improvements,” Musk said. “So we really need Starship to carry Starlink in order to get the total delivered cost to orbit to be much better than it is today — which is still very good.”
‘The fighter jet era has passed’
On another topic, Musk said there needed to be a competitor to the Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is built by Lockheed Martin and has been the subject of controversies over cost overruns.
“It’s not good to have one provider,” Musk said. “It’s good to have competition, where that competition is meaningful and somebody can actually lose.”
Musk also said “locally autonomous drone warfare is where the future will be.”
“The fighter jet era has passed,” he said.
After the talk, Musk expanded upon his comments in a tweet. “The competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy,” he wrote. “The F-35 would have no chance against it.”
The concept that Musk described sounds similar to the “Loyal Wingman” system that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Kratos have been working on. Such a system would team up pilotless, armed drones with piloted control planes. Boeing and the Navy recently demonstrated the concept using EA-18G Growler aircraft.
Other highlights from today’s chat
- Musk said fully reusable rockets like Starship will be key to maintaining America’s primacy in space. “It will definitely require radical innovation,” he said. “One can’t get there by incrementally innovating expendable boosters.”
- If the United States doesn’t continue to innovate in space, “it will be second in space, as sure as night follows day,” Musk said. Who would be first? Musk pointed to China. Because China’s population is more than four times greater than America’s, “the Chinese economy is going to be at least twice as big as the U.S. economy,” he said.
- He said economic disparity will have implications for defense policy: “The foundation of war is economics, so if you have half the resources of the counter party, then you’d better be real innovative. If you’re not innovative, you’re going to lose. … In the absence of radical innovation, the U.S. will be militarily second.”
- In response to Thompson’s lightning-round questions, Musk said that artificial intelligence will be the “most fundamentally transformative” technology over the next five years, and that he considered computer science and physics to be the most valuable academic degrees.
- Musk said he thought creating a U.S. Space Force was a great idea, but he insisted that there should be “cool uniforms, cool spaceships.” He said the general public wanted to see the Star Trek vision of Starfleet Academy become a reality. “Just try to make Starfleet happen as soon as humanly possible, and definitely while we’re still alive,” Musk told the uniformed audience. “I’m not sure about warp drive, but the other stuff can be done.”