SpaceX sees U.S. Army as possible customer for Starlink and Starship

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Shotwell: “We’re talking to the Army about Starlink and Starship."

WASHINGTON — SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell appeared on a panel Wednesday alongside U.S. Army leaders who talked about their efforts to modernize the force and bring more innovation into military procurement.

Shotwell was speaking to an unfamiliar audience that may not know much about what SpaceX does or why she was sitting on that panel on the final day of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

“SpaceX is new to this forum and this service,” she said.

Shotwell then shared with the audience a bit of the history of SpaceX and mentioned that the company’s goal is to build “transportation systems” that are reliable and low cost.

After the panel, Shotwell told SpaceNews that SpaceX views the Army as a potential customer both for its next-generation Starship space vehicle and for its low Earth orbit broadband constellation Starlink.

“We’re talking to the Army about Starlink and Starship,” she said without elaborating further.

The Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket — collectively referred to as Starship — are being developed as a reusable transportation system to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon and Mars. The Army does not launch big satellites or sends crews to space, but conceivably it could use Starship for point-to-point transportation around Earth, for example, to deliver cargo in minutes halfway around the world. SpaceX already has made that pitch to the U.S. Air Force

Shotwell did not talk about Starlink during the panel discussion. But it’s no secret that the company is interested in securing the U.S. military as a customer for its massive broadband constellation that is just starting to get built. SpaceX deployed its first 60 Starlink satellites in May and plans to launch hundreds and potentially thousands more in the years ahead.

Army officials speaking at the AUSA event Oct. 15 said they are considering tapping into commercial LEO megaconstellations to support the service’s demands for higher capacity and lower latency communications.

How to push innovation

During the panel Q&A session, Shotwell said SpaceX’s experience figuring out how to land rockets could serve as a lesson for the Army or any organization trying to push technology forward. It took years of experimenting and trying multiple approaches to guide rockets back to land and on droneships at sea, she said. “The key is to test, learn fast, fail early. … You do want to fail early on development, not on your operational missions. You need to push the envelope during development.”

Shotwell explained why the company is passionate about reusable rockets. SpaceX is building rockets and spaceships to “move people and cargo to distant locations or to not so distant locations but in rapid order,” she said. “It is important that these systems be reusable.”

Traditional expendable rockets get tossed in the ocean, Shotwell said. “I think that’s a bad learning experience. … You’re polluting the oceans, and it seems like a waste of money.”

Shotwell said government funding can go a long way in propelling innovation but the government has to make sure that the investment turns into a useful capability.

“How you contract with us is absolutely key,” she said. An example is NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that awarded contracts to SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to provide commercial resupply services to the International Space Station.

Shotwell said NASA’s investment paid off because the companies matched it with private funding that was poured into technologies that NASA needed. Her advice to the Army is to “partner with industries that want to build a similar capability to what you’re looking for. Help them a little bit. Do a little bit of investment on the development side. But be the market on the back end.”

She also cautioned the Army to make sure it negotiates intellectual property rights with contractors. “The government gets ripped off,” she said. “You pay 99 percent of the bill. The contractors put in 1 percent in IRAD (independent research and development) and they own all the IP.”