A SpaceX rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Aug. 14, 2016. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX Says It Could Replace Containerships? We Say No, It Can’t

John Konrad
Total Views: 3329
May 12, 2023

by John Konrad (gCaptain) In the vast cosmos of technological innovation, the concept of rocket-propelled cargo transport has become a dazzling star, captivating the imagination of enthusiasts and dreamers alike. SpaceX’s Starship, the gleaming brainchild of Elon Musk, is now being touted as the harbinger of a new era in logistics—an era where rockets replace container ships, and goods zip across continents in the blink of an eye. Some at SpaceX even suggest rockets will replace containerships. But before we let our imaginations run amok, let’s take a step back and look at physics. Let’s unpack the exhilarating narrative of rocket cargo and contrast it against the unglamorous yet indomitable workhorse of global trade: the humble container ship.

In the aftermath of the spectacular launch and unfortunate subsequent explosion of SpaceX’s Starship over the Gulf of Mexico, a captivating notion has been projected into the public imagination. SpaceX executives have claimed that this technology, despite its explosive debut, has the potential to revolutionize logistics, enabling cargo to be rocketed between continents at breathtaking speed. The suggestion that the humble container ship could soon be replaced by the gleaming cylinders of SpaceX’s rockets has been kindled in the minds of many.

The audacious launch, which held a 50-50 chance of success just a few months ago, was seen as a triumph by SpaceX, despite its fiery conclusion. For them, the mere act of leaving the launch pad is a cause for celebration, signifying a shift in the way we think about the transportation of goods around the globe. Board members Antonio Gracias and Gavin Baker, in a recent episode of the ‘All In’ podcast, have declared this event as a herald of a new era. They foresee a time when journeys that currently take days, such as a flight from New York to Tokyo, could be a matter of hours. They say we can imagine a container ship’s cargo transported across the Pacific in a couple of hours. They predict a time, in the near future, when transatlantic and transpacific aerospace cargo routes could become obsolete.

“Transportation generally changes,” said SpaceX board member Antonio Gracias. “If you want to fly to Tokyo from New York City goes from being you know, a day trip to a matter of hours. It’s extraordinary.” The podcast host then asked him if it will be possible to move containership’s worth of goods across the ocean in a couple of hours. Gracias responded by saying “Yes, kind of everything would become rapid transport around the earth even on Earth having gets faster.”

With 90% of all goods arriving via cargo ships, the prospect of SpaceX entering the transportation and logistics game is a fascinating one. They claim this technology, initially developed for interplanetary purposes, could have profound implications for terrestrial logistics. In a world where time is money, the ability to reduce transit times from weeks to mere hours is a game-changer. The notion of replacing these massive cargo ships with rockets may seem far-fetched now, but according to SpaceX, we could see this reality materialize within the next five years.

This, however, is pure bullshit.

The Costs Are Astronomical

According to Nic Sallis, CEO of FleetDrive 360, the cost to launch a Falcon9 rocket, with a payload capacity of 50,000 lbs. for low earth orbit, is approximately $67 million. This equates to moving a single 40′ container (with a weight limit of 59,000 lbs.) across the globe at a cost of $1,334 per pound. However, the larger Starship, with a payload capacity of approximately 330,000 lbs., could potentially carry 5.6 such containers. If Elon Musk’s prediction of reducing launch costs to $10 million per launch comes to fruition, the cost per container would drop to about $1.785 million or $30.30 per pound, assuming the weight limit is fully utilized and volume isn’t a limiting factor.

So it is ridiculously expensive. Even if Musk’s team can drop the costs to 1/10th – which is remotely possible because intercontinental delivers don’t need to travel all the way up to space – his wildest estimate that’s still $178,500 per container.

The Environmental Costs Are Much Worse

Cast aside the thorny issue of exorbitant costs, and we still have a BIG problem. Fuel use.

To replace containerships SpaceX’s team would need to solve a far more formidable problem: the insatiable thirst of their rockets for fuel. In a time when the captains of global shipping are charting new courses towards environmental responsibility, the prospect of igniting such vast quantities of rocket fuel to shepherd a mere shipping container across the globe seems not only extravagant but outright quixotic.

The container ship, an invention of the post-World War II era by Malcolm McLean, has proven to be one of the most transformative innovations in human history. It has dramatically changed the way goods are moved around the world, pulling billions out of poverty and serving as the backbone of global trade. The Ever Given containership, a mega ship that can carry around 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), underlines the scale and efficiency of modern maritime transport. However, recent enthusiasm about the future of logistics seems to overlook these impressive figures. Specifically the sheer weight of all these goods feeding and clothing the world.

Musk, a man well-versed in physics, has championed the vision of rocket-propelled cargo logistics, a concept that seems to belie the fundamental principles of energy efficiency and practical economics. It is critical to understand that the energy required to launch a rocket is astronomically high. So much so that the carbon footprint of a single SpaceX payload could potentially negate the environmental benefits reaped from the entire fleet of Tesla electric vehicles. This colossal energy demand underscores the insurmountable challenge of scaling rocket launches for cargo transport.

Consider the sheer magnitude of a vessel like the Ever Given: with a total displacement exceeding 250,000 tons, it boasts a cargo capacity of about 200,000 tons. The notion of such prodigious amounts of heavy cargo soaring overhead in the skies brings to the fore serious safety concerns. Yet, even these are eclipsed by the staggering fuel consumption such a venture would entail, intensifying the question of sustainability to a near fever pitch.

The efficiency of ships, often misunderstood, is not simply derived from the low-friction environment of water. It lies in the underlying physics of moving goods. When a kilogram of cargo is transported via ship, it does not have to be lifted vertically, eliminating the need for significant energy expenditure.

Ships Don’t Go Up Hill

Here lies the pivotal argument, one that demands the undivided attention of all engaged in the logistics sectors: Ships stand leagues ahead in energy efficiency when compared to planes and rockets, and the reasoning is elegantly simple – ships traverse no hills. A ship can sail from San Francisco to Zanzibar without encountering one hill. Without battling the relentless tug of gravity. Thus, this level playing field renders their voyage incomparably more energy-efficient, a crucial fact we must underscore in our global conversation about sustainable logistics.

Additionally, ships move at a slower pace than other forms of transport, further contributing to energy efficiency.

In contrast, rockets must overcome the full force of gravity to lift their cargo vertically. This energy expenditure is magnitudes higher than that of ships, making the idea of replacing container ships with rockets economically untenable. Not to mention the environmental implications of burning colossal amounts of rocket fuel high overhead to transport cargo, a far cry from the decarbonized future we aspire towards.

Rockets Capture Imagination – Not Cargo Reality

The allure of futuristic logistics, from drone deliveries to rocket cargo, is undeniable. However, the current narrative seems to bypass the reality of energy efficiency, infrastructure limitations, and economic feasibility.

Venture capitalists such as Antonio Gracias are clearly captivated by the boundless potential, funnelling billions into rocket technology that, unless Musk uncovers the secret to defying gravity itself, will never truly supplant the humble ship. This presents an alarming paradox: the transportation modes with the most egregious energy inefficiencies are being inundated with a deluge of R&D funding from venture capitalists and governments alike. Meanwhile, the most energy-efficient means of transport, the unsung heroes of our global logistics network, are left starved of technology and capital.

Also Read: Without Waterways Biden’s Climate Plan Will Waste Trillions

While there is always room for improvement and innovation in logistics, the concept of rocket cargo transportation appears to be more of a starry-eyed fantasy than a viable solution. The humble container ship, despite its prosaic image, has stood the test of time and continues to serve as the workhorse of global trade. As we navigate towards the future, it is critical to ground our ambitions in the bedrock of scientific principles and practical economics. For now, at least, it seems that the container ship is here to stay.

We harbor an earnest hope that investment in maritime technology will surge, for ships shall not be supplanted until rocket fuel itself becomes obsolete. However, to reach that juncture, venture capitalists and governments must first appreciate the intricate physics that underpin freight transportation and we – the shipping community – must do a better job debunking myths and explaining the first principles of freight to them. In an effort to enlighten these stakeholders, we have crafted an informative video, demystifying the complex yet fascinating physics behind why maritime cargo is so energy efficient:

Related Video – The Physics Of Freight

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