SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has laid out a scenario for space travel that calls for his company’s Starship launch system to take on its first orbital test flight as soon as January.
Starship could go through “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the moon, Mars and even the solar system’s outer planets by 2023, Musk said during a Nov. 17 online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy.
But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the lower-cost scientific mission stuff on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.
The National Academies presentation followed up on big-picture talks that Musk delivered in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as the BFR or “Big Frickin’ Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk settled on “Starship”).
Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster would be a one-size-fits-all system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions and all manner of trips beyond Earth orbit, including moon landings. It’d be capable of lofting more than 100 tons to low Earth orbit (three times as much as the space shuttle), and sending 100 people at a time to Mars.
This week’s presentation provided some new details.
The production-model Super Heavy booster would have 33 methane-fueled engines rather than the 29 engines that have been installed on the prototype. They’d be next-generation Raptor 2 engines, each capable of 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff. Total thrust would as high as 17 million pounds (7,700 metric tons), Musk said.
“It’s about 2.2, 2.3 times the thrust of a Saturn V,” Musk said. “It’s the biggest rocket ever designed, and we’re really close to our initial launch.”
The first orbital Starship and Super Heavy booster are currently undergoing testing at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk expected the launch pad and tower to be complete this month. “Then we’ll do a bunch of tests in December, and hopefully launch in January,” he said.
That timeline comes with several caveats. First of all, Musk is known for making optimistic projections about launch schedules. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration still has to sign off on conducting the launch, and some observers think FAA approval is months away. Even then, success isn’t guaranteed.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful,” Musk said, “but I think we’ll make a lot of progress.”
Musk said SpaceX has built a factory capable of making “a great many” Starship rockets. And it’ll take a lot of them to realize Musk’s longer-term vision for solar system settlement, beginning with a moon base and a city on Mars.
“In order for life to become multiplanetary, we’ll need maybe a thousand ships or something like that,” he said.
Musk acknowledged that some technical challenges still need to be fully addressed. In a Twitter exchange, he said that even the Raptor 2 engine wouldn’t be enough to “actually make life multiplanetary,” and that a new class of rocket engine would have to be developed. Also, Starship would need a yet-to-be-developed insulation system to keep the super-cooled propellants at their proper temperature for long-duration trips or for in-space refueling.
In response to a question, Musk said the fully reusable launch system could probably start flying missions at a cost that’s significantly less than the $62 million list price of a Falcon 9 launch in two years.
“Obviously we still have a lot to prove, but architecturally it is capable of transporting almost any arbitrary mass to any solid surface in the solar system,” Musk said.
The moon would be the target for two early Starship applications. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who’s due to visit the International Space Station next month, is paying an undisclosed price to go on a round-the-moon mission in 2023 or so, and NASA plans to use a version of Starship to land astronauts on the moon in 2025.
Looking further ahead, Musk said the first two or three Starship missions to Mars would be uncrewed. “The first thing we’d want to do is confirm that we can land the ship safely on Mars,” he explained. The first crewed trips to the Red Planet would probably be conducted in cooperation with NASA, “or maybe NASA and other countries,” he said.
Eventually, the world’s richest person wants to see humanity spread out across the solar system, with Mars serving as a beachhead.
“I just think being a multiplanet species is a tremendous risk mitigation for human civilization,” he said. “As we know, if you wait long enough, Earth will become uninhabitable. So in the long run, we are obviously all dead, but I think the technology that we develop in traveling from Earth to Mars will be a very powerful forcing function for the improvement of space transport.”
He drew a parallel to the development of sea travel. “The initial boats that crossed the Atlantic and crossed the Pacific back in the sailing days were really terrible,” he said. “Once there was a reason to do large amounts of ocean trade, the sailing ships got dramatically better. But you have to have that forcing function. So that’s what I think will happen. We’ll get much better at space transport.”
For Musk, the bottom line is to keep the “delicate candle of consciousness” burning in our corner of the universe, even if life on Earth falls prey to an asteroid strike or other type of extinction event.
“If we’ve got large rockets that could potentially do something about that, then that could one day save billions of people,” he said.
Musk’s talk wasn’t all about Starship. Here are a few more sound bites:
- Musk repeated his claim that he’s working with Nobel-winning Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter on a plan that calls for using Starship for a next-generation space telescope. “This is taking a ground-based lens — a lens that was intended for a ground-based telescope — and creating a space-based telescope with it,” he said. (We haven’t yet heard Perlmutter’s side of the story.)
- SpaceX has been working with astronomers and regulatory agencies to minimize the impact of its Starlink broadband satellites on observations of the night sky. “The telescope that is perhaps most sensitive to this is Vera Rubin [Observatory], and we worked directly with the Vera Rubin team to make sure that their observations will not be affected by Starlink satellites,” Musk said. “My understanding is, at this point, they are comfortable that it will not be an interference for Vera Rubin. There’s a slight risk of capacitor coupling between some of the sensors there, which can create ambiguity, but we’re confident that we can work around that.”
- Musk acknowledged that creating a city on Mars would raise planetary protection issues. “There is fundamentally a choice to be made, which is, are we going to try to be a multiplanet species? Which would mean that at least in one spot on Mars, there is human biology,” he said. “But I don’t think this is going to invalidate research on the rest of the planet, and Mars is a big planet.”
- It shouldn’t be surprising that Musk is a big booster of solar power and battery storage, in light of the fact that Musk is the CEO at Tesla as well as at SpaceX. But he also said he’s “actually pro-nuclear, fission-wise, and there’s also hydro and geothermal” as well as wind power. He said all those sources will probably be sufficient to meet Earth’s long-term energy needs without having to resort to nuclear fusion reactors or space solar power. (In contrast, rival billionaire Jeff Bezos has touted space solar power as a key motivation for space commercialization.)
- Musk said he’s often asked about the prospects of finding extraterrestrial life. “I think that Fermi’s Paradox is just an interesting question,” he said. “I’m not sure who said it, but there’s either a lot of aliens or none, and each of those answers are equally terrifying.”
Update: Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, who led the imaging team for NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and is now a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, took issue with Musk’s outlook in a Twitter exchange:
Lead image: An artist’s conception shows a Starlink rocket lifting off from Mars. Credit: SpaceX.