U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John "JT" Thompson, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, talks to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the Air Force Space Pitch Day event in San Francisco. Credit: SpaceNews/Debra Werner

SAN FRANCISCO – The space industry’s primary hardware problem is its need for a “fully rapidly reusable orbital rocket,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said Nov. 5 at U.S. Air Force Space Pitch Day where he was a surprise guest. “This is the holy grail.”

While SpaceX has made progress in reusing Falcon rocket boosters and fairings, “it is absolutely as profound to have a reusable rocket as it is to have reusable transport in all domains: bicycles, aircraft, cars, horses are all reusable,” Musk said during a conversation with Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center commander.

SpaceX is aiming to make its Starship and Super Heavy rocket fully reusable because “a giant reusable craft costs much less than a small expendable craft,” Musk said.

A single Starship will expend about $900,00 worth of fuel and oxygen for pressurization to send “at least 100 tons, probably 150 tons to orbit,” Musk said. SpaceX’s cost to operate Starship will be around $2 million per flight, which is “much less than even a tiny rocket,” he added.

Still, the space industry will need rockets of various sizes like the aircraft industry produces large and small planes. “It’s not like there are only 747s,” Musk said. All the rockets need to be reusable, he added.

Musk asked the audience to imagine if someone started a company to sell single-use aircraft.

“On the plus side you could takeoff with no landing gear and run until your tanks are dry so you have extra range,” Musk mused. Then you would need to drop the cargo before the plane crashed, he said, adding, “That’s how rockets work.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...