That was the inspiration for Starlink

Monday, July 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk realized that getting to Mars would cost serious money, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

“Internet revenue is about one trillion dollars a year,” he says. “If we can serve three percent, that’s $30 billion, which is more than NASA’s budget. That was the inspiration for Starlink, to fund getting to Mars.”


The plan was to send satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 340 miles high, so that the latency of the signals would not be as bad as systems that depended on geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. From their low altitude, Starlink’s beams cannot cover nearly as much ground, so many more are needed. Starlink’s goal was to eventually create a megaconstellation of forty thousand satellites.

In the midst of the hellacious summer of 2018, Musk was having a Spidey sense that something was amiss at Starlink. Its satellites were too big, expensive, and difficult to manufacture. In order to reach a profitable scale, they would have to be made at one-tenth the cost and ten times faster. But the Starlink team did not seem to feel much urgency, a cardinal sin for Musk.

So one Sunday night that June, without much warning, he flew to Seattle to fire the entire top Starlink team. He brought with him eight of his most senior SpaceX rocket engineers. None knew much about satellites, but they all knew how to solve engineering problems and apply Musk’s algorithm.


On a visit to Cornell in 2004, Musk sent a note to some engineering professors inviting them to bring one or two of their favorite students to lunch. “It was like, you know, do you want a free lunch on this rich guy?” Juncosa says. “Hell yeah, I’m into that for sure.” When Musk described what he was doing at SpaceX, Juncosa thought, “Man, this guy is crazy as hell, and I think he’s going to lose all his money, but he seems super smart and motivated and I like his style.” When Musk offered him a job, he accepted immediately.


When Juncosa took over at Starlink, he threw away the existing design and started back at a first-principles level, questioning every requirement based on fundamental physics. The goal was to make the simplest communications satellite possible, and later add bells and whistles.


For example, the satellite’s antennas were on a separate structure from the flight computer. The engineers had decreed that they be thermally isolated from one another. Juncosa kept asking why. When told that the antennas might overheat, Juncosa asked to see the test data. “By the time that I asked ‘Why?’ five times,” Juncosa says, “people were like, ‘Shit, maybe we should just make this one integrated component.’”

By the end of the design process, Juncosa had turned a rat’s nest into what was now a simple flat satellite. It had the potential to be an order of magnitude cheaper. More than twice as many could be packed into the nose cone of a Falcon 9, doubling the number each flight could deploy. “I was, like, pretty happy with it,” Juncosa says. “I’m sitting there thinking how clever I had been.”


“Why not release them all at once?” he asked. That initially struck Juncosa and the other engineers as crazy. They were afraid of collisions. But Musk said the motion of the spaceship would cause them to separate naturally. If they did happen to bump, it would be very slow and harmless. So they got rid of the connectors, saving a little bit of cost, complexity, and mass. “Life got way easier because we culled those parts,” Juncosa says. “I was too chicken to propose that, but Elon made us try it.”


  1. Jim says:

    What a stud.

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