Mass Production Rate and SpaceX Starship Costs

The staffing levels at SpaceX and the production rate of Super Heavy boosters and Starship upper stages can be used to estimate the current and future costs for each Starship and Super Heavy booster.

Space X started construction on two Starship prototypes in the month of May. SpaceX has a goal of producing two Starships every week in 2021. This would be 100 Starships built in 2021.

The estimated salary, benefits and overhead would be an estimated an average annual cost \$200,000 for each SpaceX employees. This means that the 3,000 employees building Super Heavy Starships would be \$600 million per year. If there were 100 Starship built each year and 20 Super Heavy Boosters, then each Starship would have about \$4 million in labor and each Super Heavy booster would have about \$10 million in labor. If the production rate was halved and the staff levels were the same then the labor for Starship would be \$8 million and the Super Heavy booster would be \$20 million. SpaceX is four times slower of the goal at the two per month construction rate. The labor for each Starship would be \$16 million and the Super Heavy booster would be \$40 million. SpaceX has not hired all 3000 staff at this point.

The steel is about \$200 per kilogram. The dry mass of the Starship will be about 120 tons and the Super Heavy Booster will be about 300 tons. This would be \$2.4 million for the Starship if most of the material was the steel alloy. The Super Heavy would be \$6 million of steel.

If the steel and salaries are half of the total cost of the rockets then the unit costs at different production levels would be:

Two Starships per month would mean \$37 million per Starship
One Starship per week would mean \$21 million per Starship
Two Starship per week would mean \$13 million per Starship

Reaching a Starship cost of \$5 million would require 3000 employees to build about 300 Starship every year. This would be \$1.3 million in labor, \$2.4 million in material and \$1.3 million for other costs.

Five Super Heavy Boosters per year would mean \$92 million per SH booster
Ten Super Heavy Boosters per year would mean \$52 million SH booster
20 Super Heavy Boosters per year would mean \$32 million SH booster

SOURCES- Brian Wang analysis based upon statements from Elon Musk and SpaceX
Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com

18 thoughts on “Mass Production Rate and SpaceX Starship Costs”

1. Cost estimators generally use an ‘engineering factor’ that represents complexity of construction, so complex parts require more capital and labor touch time to fabricate. The highest production rate aerospace system (Boeing 747) got down to about \$1000/kg after about 10yrs of production, across all the subsystems (the last 747 listed for about \$378M or about \$1722/kg). The above analysis ignores capital cost amortization and the fact that the Raptor engines are complex, precisicion devices – so their engineering factor is very high (say 150x material cost). It’ll be a challenge to get a 5-10 fold improvement in production costs over the \$1000/kg baseline. For reference, passenger cars at high volume are ~\$10/kg for purchased parts (ignoring labor, margin, amortization, etc.). This baseline is what Elon is targeting I’m sure, but even the Teslas are nowhere near that.

2. Space exploration is no longer being driven by bureaucracies

I’ll reserve judgement until the day SpaceX announces they will be using Starlink cash for a private Mars mission. Funding their core business(F9, Starship) as a launch provider doesn’t really qualify.

3. Lockheed would find another vendor to source the 304L stainless steel, rather than pay \$200.00 per kg. Try substantially under \$5.00 kg for a U.S. foundry.

4. Colonizing Mars has always been his plan – he’s been saying it for many many years. Everything else is just to fund it.

5. ” The opportunities that exist are literally boundless.” Not trying to be contrary, but do you know of a good list of such opportunities? Honestly, I’d like to see it and evaluate each item. Here’s what i see off the top of my head:
– Skylink – good for money, however will not consume Starship launch slots
– Intercontinental rocket travel or delivery – I’m just not seeing how that all is going to work in a way that makes sense any time soon. The question there is, what are specific needs and market segments?
– Lunar base: again, why? For whom?
– Space habitats – again, motivations and market segments
– Zero gravity manufacturing / chemistry – why exactly, for what?
– Microwave energy from space – good for tin hat sales, but big NIMBY issues
– War fighting or logistics – that could definitely use up Starships

Classic Sci-Fi never came to grips with the energy problems of space travel (Heinlein introduced “isotopes”; at least he addressed the issue.) SpaceX is attacking the energy problem head on, however, then all the other problem become more clear, and those issues demand motivations to overcome them.

I’d like to believe that Musk is not operating entirely on “build it and they will come”. As I’ve written before, I think this is all about colonizing Mars. Everything else could just be “Big Tang.” (Ok, yes, a dated reference 🙂

6. But does Starship needs it’s production cost to be only \$5 million or less???

Airtravel did not become affordable to the masses because airplanes cost \$5 million to produce, but because they travel hundreds of times and each flight takes a share of the total tickets flight to pay the initial price, which is over \$150 million for an airbus.

Here a good article about cost of air travel, based on an even more in-depth documentary (linked)
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/what-airlines-really-spend-your-airfare-money-on/

7. Yes and my hope is that Musk cashes out of Tesla and focuses full time on Moon/Mars.

Why light yourself on fire making cars when you can collect easy ISP money and reinvest it in your own space program.

8. People other than NASA will go to Mars before NASA goes to Mars.

Space exploration is no longer being driven by bureaucracies.

9. I am more optimistic. The opportunities that exist are literally boundless and have till now been impossible to attempt because of the cost. I believe there will be a huge surge of interest and investment when SpaceX actually begins their orbital launches of Starship and demonstrates the capacity and flexibility of their fleet.

As a planet reeling from the economic disaster of Covid 19 this may be exactly the cure we need – to open up the new frontier and invest in a myriad of efforts that will garner the support and enthusiasm of thousands of people ready to leave the old world behind and to build the new.

10. It’s not like they’re waiting on NASA. If Starlink works out the way NBF has projected, SpaceX will have a NASA-level annual budget just from Starlink profits.

11. His plan is to also fly point to point intercontinental passenger traffic. If successful that will take up a large part of the fleet.

12. only impossible in the real world

13. This is why using lots of Starships as space station modules would be useful. It would let us build space stations with giant lego modules. 50 meters long by 9 meters in diameter lego modules. They would be the cheapest way to build space stations, moon bases, L5 stations, etc…

That remains to be seen, the VC dollars funding Starlink wasn’t intending for the proceeds to be squandered on a public works project. SpaceX & Starlink isn’t wholly owned by Musk, even if he was so inclined.
The only money making Mars venture I see in the cards that would support using company funds to develop, a fully NASA funded joy ride.

15. Yeah, launch demand is inelastic.

But that’s because there never was the launch bandwidth and cost per kg allowing it to grow beyond the most profitable operations (mostly satellites). Crewed space was kind of a token application, funded by governments and with very few missions.

It will take some time for the demand to grow to occupy the new launch bandwidth, but in this case SpaceX will eat their cake and have it too, by launching their own money making schemes to space. And Elon Musk’s lifelong goal of sending people to Mars (all funded by Starlink).

16. Assuming Starship is fully reusable, i fail to imagine a scenario that would demand 300 Starship every year within the next few decades. It’s not like NASA will be going to Mars in that time frame.

Until it flies its first surface to surface freight mission, I’ll continue to view that as just one of the near infinite things that’s not going to happen even though it’s allowable under known physics.

17. \$200,000 is probably the California price of employing workers. South Texas should be a lot cheaper, and that is where the actual manufacturing work is being done. The cost of series 300 stainless steel is much less than \$200/kg. 316(towards the top of the price range) runs about 2 \$/lb(4.4\$/kg) in sheet form from AKsteel.com.
As time goes on, there will be a dramatic drop in labor costs, as capital equipment is deployed, and metal is purchased in wider rolls. SpaceX will likely start making, or at least designing, and contracting the manufacture of their own avionics, as tesla makes the electronics for it’s cars. Expect to see the manufacture of raptor engines moved closer to where they are being tested, likely in Texas. No doubt costs will fall dramatically from the cost of the first that actually make it to orbit.