In a recent interview with Via Satellite following her receipt of the online magazine’s Executive of the Year award for the second time, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell explained how the Starlink Internet satellite constellation could make it possible for Elon Musk to realize his ultimate ambitions for Mars. She said that Musk had been considering the revenue that could be generated by expanding into other areas like broadband Internet service.
“The total addressable market for launch, with a conservative outlook on commercial human passengers, is probably about $6 billion, but the addressable market for global broadband is $1 trillion,” she said.
SpaceX has plans to launch a total of 42,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit and recently received approval to launch some of them into a lower orbit than had originally been planned. The FCC approved this application over the objections of competitors like OneWeb and Amazon’s “Project Kuiper.” The competing satellite Internet providers say that it could interfere with their operations. OneWeb had previously claimed that one of its satellites nearly collided with a Starlink satellite while the latter was being launched, an allegation that has since been debunked.
Selling points for satellite Internet services like Starlink include the idea that they could reach areas that have previously been neglected due to low median income or population density. Launching satellites into a lower orbit could improve latency times and speeds. SpaceX is currently working with government agencies like the FCC to bring broadband Internet to these areas. Plans for improved infrastructure for Internet access is also included in President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion package for national infrastructure projects, although this is not yet a done deal.
If SpaceX can get 25 million Starlink customers signed up at current prices, it could generate $30 billion a year, which is about 10 times what it earns as a launch service provider. Shotwell has previously said that SpaceX has no plans to have tiered pricing based on speed, although it might consider having lower-cost plans for low-income customers.
Despite SpaceX’s willingness to ramp up investment in developing Starlink for underserved areas, including launching more satellites on Falcon 9 rockets every couple of weeks and issuing plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Texas devoted entirely to producing them, neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk have lost sight of the end goal of reaching Mars. Shotwell said of it:
“If you want to help fund long-term Mars development programs, you want to go into markets and sectors that are much bigger than the one you’re in, especially if there’s enough connective tissue between that giant market, and what you’re doing now. That’s how I recall it, but that’s a good question for Elon.”
Musk has repeatedly said that he would like to start sending humans to Mars by 2026, although experts say that this may be an unrealistic goal. Four prototypes for the interplanetary rocket Starship exploded during or shortly after landing in high-altitude tests in recent months. Although engineers say they still got plenty of data from the tests and used it to make upgrades to the SN15 prototype, developmental issues like this could pose a challenge to Musk’s characteristically ambitious timeline. SpaceX plans to conduct the first flight test of SN15 as early as this week.
Once Starship becomes operational, Musk plans for an ambitious launch schedule of up to three Starships a day and send up to 100 Starships per year to Mars over the next ten years. These Starships will eventually contain future Martian settlers if all goes as planned.