Elon Musk offers update on SpaceX’s Starship mega-rocket

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File photo of SpaceX founder, CEO and chief engineer Elon Musk. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

SpaceX founder Elon Musk detailed progress on the company’s next-generation Starship program Monday, saying the huge rocket could “probably” attempt its first launch into Earth orbit next year, and adding that the Starship will fly hundreds of missions before SpaceX puts people on-board.

Tapping into an ever-growing production complex in South Texas, SpaceX is building new Starship prototypes at a rate of multiple vehicles per month. Some of the prototypes are strictly for ground testing, but SpaceX’s next Starship testbed, designed SN6, could attempt a 500-foot (150-meter) hop test later this week.

The most recent Starship test craft, named SN5, was the first Starship with full-size propellant tanks to make a successful launch and landing. During SN5’s brief up-and-down test Aug. 4, the prototype flew to an altitude of 500 feet powered by a single methane-fueled Raptor engine, then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing pad.

Speaking by phone Monday during the virtual Humans to Mars Summit, Musk is “making good progress” on the Starship program. He stressed SpaceX’s advancements in scaling up production of the Starship test vehicles — which are made of stainless steel — at the company’s Boca Chica development and test facility near Brownsville, Texas.

“The main thing we needed to make progress on with Starship is the production system,” Musk said, adding that making a prototype was “relatively easy” by comparison.

Numerous structures, high bay assembly buildings, and elements of launch infrastructure have sprung up at Boca Chica over the last year. SpaceX assembled the first Starship prototype outdoors, using open-air welding, but teams are moving production into indoor, climate-controlled facilities.

Several Starship prototypes were destroyed during ground testing since SpaceX built the first Starship test vehicle last year. But SpaceX gathered critical data during those tests, allowing engineers to update design specifications and improve the Starship design.

“Building the production system so that we can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships — that’s the hard part,” Musk said Monday. “But we’ve been been making good progress on the productions system as people can see from the aerial photos of Boca Chica.

“A year ago, there was almost nothing there, and now we’ve got quite a lot of production capability,” Musk added. “We’re rapidly making more and more ships, and we’ll be starting production of the booster soon.”

Musk said SpaceX plans to start production of the first prototype of the Starship’s first stage booster — called the Super Heavy — later this week.

Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, who established the company with a mission of sending people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.

SpaceX plans to fly Starship test vehicles and Super Heavy prototypes on hops to higher altitudes before attempting an orbital launch. Like the early Starship test flights, the first Super Heavy prototypes will fly to low altitudes with a subset of Raptor engines, beginning with two of the SpaceX-made powerplants, Musk said.

The higher-altitude Starship experiments will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future Starship vehicles, along with fins and other aerosurfaces. Higher-altitude Starship flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally goes to a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle will reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

For orbital missions, Starship will fly as the upper stage on top of the massive Super Heavy first stage booster. Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall, according to SpaceX’s website.

Both stages will come back to Earth for propulsive landings, much like the first stage on SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. That will make the Super Heavy and Starship fully reusable.

SpaceX says an operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, more than any rocket since NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 launcher.

SpaceX conducted a “hop test” of a Starship prototype Aug. 4 at the company’s South Texas launch facility. Credit: SpaceX

Musk said Monday that engineers have tweaked the design of the Super Heavy booster by increasing the thrust of its Raptor engines, allowing SpaceX to remove several Raptors from the design. It’s the latest in a series of design adjustments made since Musk unveiled the giant rocket program in 2016, when it was named the “BFR.”

Musk previously said the Super Heavy booster would have more than 30 methane-fueled Raptor engines, but Musk said Monday SpaceX is trying to “simplify the configuration.”

“So it might be 28 engines,” Musk said. “That’s still a lot of engines. We’ll also end up cranking up the thrust on the engines.”

An outer ring of engines on the Super Heavy booster will have fixed nozzles, while an inner group of eight Raptors will vector their thrust to steer the rocket during takeoff and landing.

Over time, the outer row of engines could each generate around 300 tons, or about 600,000 pounds, of thrust, according to Musk. The inner eight engines will each produce about 210 tons, or 420,000 pounds, of thrust. That will give the Super Heavy more than 15 million pounds of total thrust at liftoff.

SpaceX is eyeing giant floating platforms for operational Super Heavy and Starship launches, but near-term test flights will be based at Boca Chica. SpaceX suspended Starship development work at sites on Florida’s Space Coast last year.

Asked on Monday when SpaceX might perform the first orbital Starship launch and re-entry, Musk replied: “Probably next year.”

“I hope we do a lot of flights,” Musk continued. “The first ones might not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody has ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket. So just having that at all is pretty significant.”

And SpaceX is not going small with Starship. It’s about the same size as NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket, but has more efficient engines. SpaceX also aims to eventually refuel the Starship in Earth orbit, allowing it to fire off on missions to the moon, Mars and other destinations with a full load of propellant.

“That’s the gateway to the galaxy, or at least the solar system,” Musk said.

The billionaire entrepreneur last year said the first orbital launch of Starship could happen in 2020. Despite the project’s fast rate of progress, SpaceX won’t meet that schedule.

Elon Musk discusses the capabilities of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle with U.S. military officials in April 2019. Credit: NORAD and U.S. Northern Command

Musk said Monday that SpaceX is not performing much development of the life support systems Starships will need to accommodate people.

“We’ve got to make the thing work automatically, delivering satellites, doing hundreds of mission delivering satellites before we put people on-board,” Musk said. “We know how to make a complex life support system that can deal with a wide range environments, changing atmospheric pressure, changing the oxygen and nitrogen percentage in the air.”

Developed in partnership with NASA, SpaceX’s human-rated Crew Dragon spaceship flew astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time, demonstrating the capsule’s life support systems and SpaceX’s first spacesuit design. The suits worn by Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were designed to protect the crew members if the capsule depressurized in flight.

“In short, we know how to do that,” Musk said. “For a longer mission, like if you’re going to Mars, you want to have a more renewable system than what we have on Crew Dragon. You want to recycle things, recycle water a lot more, and oxygen more. But if you’re going to the moon, no problem.”

SpaceX’s longer-term roadmap includes an in-orbit refueling capability to make trips to the moon possible. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship vehicle in May as one of three contenders — alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics — for a human-rated lunar lander the space agency will fund for crewed moon missions later this decade.

Under the planned architecture for NASA’s Artemis moon landing program, astronauts will launch from Earth on top of the government-owned Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule. A human-rated lander will launch separately on a commercial rocket, then fly to the moon and await the docking of the Orion crew in lunar orbit.

Astronauts will float into the lunar lander and descend to the moon’s surface, perform experiments and spacewalks, then take off to head back to the Orion capsule, which will bring the crew back to Earth.

NASA’s lunar lander contract with SpaceX is initially valued at $135 million, but could grow if the Starship wins the NASA competition against Blue Origin and Dynetics. The $135 million will cover just a few percent of the Starship’s total development cost, which Musk estimated to be more than $5 billion.

“The NASA support is appreciated, but this is a program that’s over, probably more than $5 billion,” Musk said Monday. “It’s helpful, but it’s not a game changer. But hopefully, if we demonstrate success with Starship, then they can start thinking seriously about a lunar base.”

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