- A lawyer for SpaceX said she hopes the company will one day launch 1 million, or even 15 million, rocket flights per year.
- Caryn Schenewerk, senior legal counsel for the rocket company, made the comments on Thursday during a panel about airspace regulation at the 23rd annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC.
- If SpaceX achieves that launch rate, the bulk of the flights would be with its new steel rocket, Starship, taking hundreds of passengers on sub-hour international flights.
- The panel also featured a veteran airline pilot who said “my business is going away” if SpaceX can pull off its audacious plans.
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WASHINGTON — SpaceX is pushing to launch roughly two dozen missions into space this year. If the rocket company succeeds, it’d break its own annual record of 21 launches set in 2018.
But SpaceX has a loftier launch-schedule ambitions than that: Earlier this month, Elon Musk laid out the math of how he plans to put 1 million people on Mars.
“Starship design goal is 3 flights/day avg rate, so ~1000 flights/year,” Musk tweeted on January 16.
But SpaceX apparently has far, far larger launch goals than that, as Caryn Schenewerk, senior legal counsel for SpaceX, said Thursday at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 23rd annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference.
“I hope that we’re at a million flights some day,” Schenewerk said during a panel that explored how rocket ships and airplanes should share the skies. “When we are at that point, it’s going to be because we have worked our way up the safety trajectory in a way that allows us to operate there.”
Schenewerk told Business Insider after the panel that she could not immediately provide a notional timeline or breakdown of future launches without first consulting SpaceX’s communications team.
However, the majority of those million annual hypothetical flights — perhaps even up to 15 million a year some day, Schenewerk said — would likely be point-to-point travel by rocket ship.
‘My business is going away’
Musk first unveiled SpaceX’s concept for the scheme in October 2017 with a video, calling the idea “Earth to Earth.” The goal of the scheme is to slash around-the-world and other international travel times down to under an hour instead of taking a day or longer.
Starship, a fully reusable launch vehicle that the company is working to develop in Boca Chica, Texas, would ostensibly blast passengers from one spaceport to another at 4.6 miles per second, or about 12 times as fast as a supersonic jet flight.
At that speed, passengers could rocket from Los Angeles to New York in just 25 minutes, Bangkok to Dubai in 27 minutes, London to New York in 29 minutes, and Delhi to San Francisco in 40 minutes.
“Would feel similar to Space Mountain in a lot of ways, but you’d exit on another continent,” Musk tweeted in 2018.
Schenewerk made her million-flights-per-year remarks while sitting next to Captain Steve Jangelis, the aviation safety chair of the Air Line Pilots Association. And he was quick to acknowledge that — if SpaceX succeeds with its point-to-point plans — airline travel could see an implosion of demand.
“I’m a steam locomotive operator right now,” Captain Jangelis told Business Insider from the dais. “You know, I have to be completely honest with you, my business is going away.”
But a huge barrier to SpaceX realizing that rocket-powered future, and the ambitions of other companies to increase their launch cadence, are space-launch regulations.
Sharpshooting the airspace
Right now, launching a rocket from the US requires piles of applications, computer-driven safety analysis, and airspace closures that are large, long, and disruptive to the airline industry. Even if the rocket never takes off due to a technical glitch or bad weather and gets delayed, the closures still affect efficient commercial airline travel.
The FAA handles about 16 million commercial flights per year, so free airspace is a precious resource.
“We need to sharpshoot the air space,” Captain Jangelis told Business Insider after the panel. “If we know that we’re fueling a rocket, do we need to close off four hours of airspace and 265 miles down range? … No, we don’t.”
Captain Jangelis said one caveat to solving the issue is getting launch countdown, location, and other real-time telemetry data shared with the aviation industry. Trouble is, he explained, launch companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others don’t freely share it.
“They don’t want to give out what telemetry they have,” Captain Jangelis said.
Despite some tense moments on the panel, both the aviation industry and launch providers appeared eager to update rocket-launch and spacecraft-landing regulations governed by the FAA. The agency’s upcoming set of rules, called Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements, or SLR2, is due to be submitted this fall.
Captain Jangelis says that, while his working days in airplane-based aviation may be numbered, it’s a long way before SpaceX will hit its milestone. To get there, he said, the entire launch industry needs to learn to share data — especially if it wants to mirror the former’s fatal accident rate of 1-in-1 billion while launching 387-foot rockets on the regular from inland spaceports and over populated areas.
“We don’t own the airspace. We’re happy to share. The issue is we have to do it safely, and we have to do it on a pattern and learn from our mistakes,” he said. “Everyone’s starting to realize that there’s a reason why we’re so safe and we need to, we need a model after commercial aviation.”
For her part, Schenewerk acknowledged there’s a lot of work to be done to coordinate with airlines, but she also called for patience.
“I’m right there with you. Let’s think about that big vision, that big day when lots of things are happening. But let’s also not yell at our kid about not being able to fly an airplane when they can barely walk,” she said. “I think that’s where we are right now. We’re still figuring out … how to walk and run in this industry.”