SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered a long-awaited, live-streamed update on his plans for launching the world’s most powerful rocket, with the spotlighted backdrop of a freshly stacked Starship and Super Heavy booster standing on the launch pad at the company’s Starbase facility in South Texas.
The Starship project is key to Musk’s plans to send thousands of settlers to Mars and make humanity a multiplanet species. It’s also key to his plans to put thousands of satellites in Earth orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, which is supposed to bring in the money needed for Mars missions.
And as if all that’s not enough, Musk expects Starship to revolutionize space travel and society in ways that can’t be foreseen. “When you have an utterly profound breakthrough, the use cases will be hard to imagine,” he told hundreds of attendees during the Feb. 10 presentation at the Boca Chica base.
Musk exhibited his trademark optimism about the launch system’s development schedule, saying that the Federal Aviation Administration could give its go-ahead for the first Starship orbital launch from Texas as soon as next month. But he said there was a Plan B in case that approval didn’t come soon.
The key issue that the FAA and other government agencies are currently considering has to do with the environmental impact that Starship launches would have on the South Texas coastal ecosystem.
“The reality is that it would not have a significant impact,” Musk insisted. “Of course, that doesn’t mean things don’t get delayed from a regulatory standpoint, and we are in a litigious society.”
Musk noted that SpaceX is also building a Starship launch tower and production facility at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. “We actually are approved from an environmental standpoint to launch from 39A, so I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months, to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said.
Three months ago, Musk said he hoped that Starship would take on its first orbital test flight in January — but that projection proved to be unrealistic, due to the project’s regulatory and technical challenges. (One of the issues has to do with making sure the chamber on the Raptor 2 rocket engine doesn’t melt.)
Now Musk is providing a somewhat fuzzier time frame. “We’re tracking to have the regulatory approval and hardware readiness around the same time … hopefully, basically a couple of months for both,” he said.
Eventually, the Florida facility would serve as the main spaceport for Starship launches, while the Texas facility would be more of a research-and-development site. In addition, SpaceX has purchased a couple of oil rigs that it’s converting into offshore launch pads.
“Hopefully by the end of this year, we will have a launch capability at Cape Kennedy at 39A and on one of the ocean platforms as well,” Musk said.
Musk provided updated figures about the launch system’s specifications and projected capabilities.
Starship alone would stand 50 meters (164 feet) tall, initially with six methane-fueled Raptor engines providing 1,500 tons of thrust. Over time, three more Raptors could be added for more oomph.
The 69-meter-tall (226-foot-tall) prototype Super Heavy booster that’s currently standing on Starbase’s pad is built for 29 Raptors, but future boosters would accommodate 33 rocket engines, providing 7,590 tons of thrust.
Both stages would be 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. The system would be capable of launching 100 to 150 tons of payload to Earth orbit. A tanker spaceship could be sent up to refill Starship’s propellant tanks for trips beyond Earth orbit.
Like SpaceX’s Falcon rockets, Starship and Super Heavy would be built to fly themselves back to Earth when it’s time for their return. The Starship system adds an extra twist, in that the rockets would be caught by maneuverable robotic arms attached to the launch tower. Musk said the active launch-and-catch tower was so essential to the system that he called it “Stage Zero.”
The arms, which have been nicknamed “chopsticks,” got a workout this week when they were used to position SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype atop the Super Heavy booster for the first time.
Musk said the fully reusable system could eventually be set up for a fresh launch in as little as an hour. He envisioned launches taking place three times a day in order to support a big move to Mars. Within two or three years, the cost for each Starship launch could amount to less than $10 million, “all in,” he said.
“This is ridiculously good compared to everything else,” Musk said.
That’s what it will take to turn humanity into a multiplanetary species and ensure “the future of life itself,” he explained. “I think maybe roughly you need about a million tons on Mars to have a self-sustaining city,” Musk said.
But Starship won’t start with ferrying settlers to Mars: Musk said the first operational Starship missions would deploy fleets of Starlink satellites with the aim of providing broadband access for billions of people around the world who are currently underserved.
Those uncrewed missions would give SpaceX a chance to fine-tune the Starship launch system for crewed flights to follow. One such flight would send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a hand-picked crew of artists around the moon, with a target launch date of 2023. Also, SpaceX is on the hook to develop a version of Starship capable of landing NASA astronauts on the moon in 2025.
As optimistic as Musk was about development schedules, he was also realistic about the prospects of suffering failures along the way. And he wasn’t above going for a laugh.
“When embarking on an endeavor, success should be at least one of the possible outcomes, and for this design, that is the case. We’re aiming for rapid reusability, which is why the booster is going to take off and then fly back to the launch tower and, aspirationally, land on the arms. Which does sound insane,” Musk told the Starbase crowd.
“If it does come in too fast, and shear off the arms, then I guess it’ll be a farewell to arms,” he said with a chuckle.
Lead image: SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy booster stand tall on the Starbase launch pad in Texas. Source: SpaceX via YouTube