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Starship vs Saturn V: Rockets Capacity Comparison

kokou adzo

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Saturn V model

Moon exploration was, without any doubt, one of the greatest space race achievements of the 20th century. But history paces forward, and now, in the 21st century, we are determined to build a base on the Moon and use it for further flights to Mars. And NASA will no longer do this alone — today, the agency will rely on private companies to fulfil its ambitious goals. 

Back in the late 1960s-early 1970s, Saturn V was the most advanced rocket ever built — it successfully completed all 13 missions, safely carrying a total of 24 astronauts to their destinations. Today, most of the ‘heavy lifting' will fall onto SpaceX's Starship (SN). So, it makes sense to do a quick Starship vs Saturn V comparison to see how it all began and how far we've already progressed. 

Starship Saturn V Comparison: Size & Height 

Even though six decades of tech advancement separate these two rockets, Starship vs Saturn V sizes are very similar, even though the new spacecraft, designed to carry larger payloads, is expectedly larger. Just how much larger is Starship than Saturn V? It is 9.4m higher but 1.1 smaller in diameter, with Saturn measuring 110.6 m high and 10.1 m wide, while Starship is 120 m high and 9 m wide. 

However, these two carriers are built from different materials. The famous Apollo rocket is much lighter than the 21st-century launcher — with 190,000 kg against 330,000 kg, respectively. Since Saturn V was not a reusable rocket, NASA engineers chose in favour of lightweight, disposable materials — aluminium, asbestos, and titanium. The new Starship launcher will be fully reusable, so SpaceX builds it from stainless steel. 

Starship vs Saturn V Power

Quite expectedly, the new carrier is more powerful than the Apollo veteran. In fact, only the SN booster stage generates almost twice as much thrust as all three Saturn stages combined. The first booster stage on NASA's rocket had ten engines that could generate 33,000 kN thrust. Combined with the two extra stages, Saturn V could generate up to 40,000 kN. Starship's first booster stage alone has 33 engines that generate over 75,00 kN. So, how many rockets does Starship have? More specifically, rocket stages? Just two, but this is already enough to outperform the 20th-century tech. 

Of course, considering the difference in weight, Starship needs way more thrust to take off. This, in turn, results in higher fuel consumption on take-off alone, but SpaceX also plans to re-use all of its stages — that is, pilot them back to Earth. This is why the new launcher is powered by liquid methane, not a combination of kerosene, liquid hydrogen, and oxygen that was common in the 20th century. 

Such a choice of propellant has two very important advantages. First, methane is ‘cleaner' than kerosene — even though we have to agree with Orbital Today and other respectable sources that kerosene is as ‘clean' as the fuel could get in the 1960s. Second, and perhaps even more important for SpaceX, is that methane can be extracted directly on Mars. This means that Starship will not need to carry additional fuel supplies for return flights to Earth, meaning it could deliver more useful payload for Mars exploration. 

And that leads us to the next, most intriguing question — what is the carrying capacity of Starship? And how does it compare with the 20th-century veteran? 

Starship ready for test flights

Starship vs Saturn V Payload Comparison 

Even though SpaceX is still carrying out test flights with its SN prototypes, it is already clear that Starship's carrying capacity will be much greater than that of its 20-century predecessor. According to SpaceX, Starship will be able to carry 100-150 tonnes of payload, depending on its orbit destination.  

So, what was the capacity of the Saturn V rocket? It was orbit-dependent as well and, on small distances, could be compared to the new launcher. The most famous rocket of the 20th century could carry up to 140 tonnes of useful cargo to low earth orbit (LEO). However, it could only deliver 43,5 tonnes of cargo to translunar orbit. Considering this, the new once again beats the old — but it is still impressive how much Saturn could carry at its prime.

Starship vs Saturn V Price: Manufacture & Launch 

Payload capacity alone already implies that Starship will be more economically feasible. Still, we should not forget that space tech development has also become way cheaper in the last fifty years. For example, it took NASA almost $6.5 billion to develop Saturn V. Considering the inflation rate, this translates into $50 billion in the 2020s prices. And, of course, there is the cost of each launch — at the time of the Apollo programme, NASA had to cash out $185 million for every mission take-off, which today is equivalent to $1.3 billion. Enormous budgets!

Luckily for us, today's tech is considerably more cost-efficient. Even though Starship is still in the prototype stage, SpaceX founder Elon Musk claims that the development price would be somewhere between $5 and $10 billion. Keep in mind that SN will be fully reusable, whereas each Saturn V booster stage had to be built from scratch for every new launch — so that's another budget point to remember. An estimated launch cost for SN should be way cheaper — somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million dollars. 

Now, what about launch sustainability and environmental impact? Well, there is no hiding the elephant in this room — rocket launches are still harmful to the environment. But, as we already mentioned, methane that should power Starships is a milder pollutant that can also be mined on Mars without exploiting our home planet's resources. Sure, the issue of mining space resources causes some reasonable doubt — but that is a story for another day. 

Right now, considering this quick Starship vs Saturn V comparison, it becomes obvious that humanity has made impressive progress in rocket building. On the other hand, today's achievements are backed up by prominent 20th-century designs, where Saturn is the most impressive example.  

Kokou Adzo is the editor and author of Stri.us. He is passionate about business and tech, and brings you the latest Startup news and information. He graduated from university of Siena (Italy) and Rennes (France) in Communications and Political Science with a Master's Degree. He manages the editorial operations at Stri.us.

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