- SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, is developing Starship: a new launch system to send people to the moon and Mars.
- SpaceX has built two prototypes of the vehicle, called Starhopper and Starship Mark 1, in South Texas.
- According to Musk, who delivered a new update about the fully reusable steel vehicle on Saturday, a completed Starship could be 387 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter.
- That’s significantly larger than the Saturn V rockets that helped send the Apollo 11 astronauts there. Starship may also have twice as much thrust.
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The hardware required to launch three people out to the moon, land two on the lunar surface, and then bring everyone home is monstrous. To that end during its Apollo program, NASA crafted the Saturn V rocket.
Each Saturn V stood about 363 feet (111 meters) tall and 33 feet (10 meters) wide. Such scale is hard to fathom, but it’s like filling up a small office tower with enough liquid fuel and oxidizer to level a small town.
The giant machine powered the world’s first crewed moon-landing mission – the Apollo 11 astronauts stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969. Five more moon landings followed, though no one has returned in decades.
Now, 50 years later, private interests have set their sights on sending people back to the moon and on to Mars.
On Saturday from Boca Chica, Texas – a relatively remote location at the southeastern tip of Texas, where SpaceX has created an evolving private launch site – Musk revealed the newest design for Starship.
Starship is SpaceX’s towering and ostensibly fully reusable solution to deep-space travel.
Over the past few years, Musk has shown several versions of the vehicle, which is envisioned as having two fully reusable (and thus absurdly cheap to launch) rocket stages: a 22-story booster, called Super Heavy, and a 16-story spaceship, called Starship.
Musk believes Starship would ferry about 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to Mars at a time starting in the mid-2020s – though he or SpaceX have yet to provide any specific plans for life support systems and other gear that’s vital to keeping people alive in space and on another planet.
NASA is also planning to return humans to the lunar surface in 2024 with its own rocket system, called Space Launch System (SLS). But that program is years behind schedule and over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, so Musk is pitching Starship as a capable alternative.
“This is gonna sound pretty crazy, but … with an uncrewed vehicle, I believe we could land on the moon in two years,” Musk told Time Editor at Large Jeffrey Kluger on July 12. “So then maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew. I would say four years at the outside.”
SpaceX has built a 164-foot-tall Starship prototype – and it’s building more
Musk showed off his engineers’ newest version of the Starship design on September 28 before an impressive, though rapidly assembled, prototype called Starship Mark 1 (Mk1).
Compared to his most recent presentation about the launch system, in September 2018, the vehicle’s height hasn’t changed too much. The spaceship shrunk about 16 feet (5 meters) and the booster grew by about as much. Stacked together, a final hypothetical craft would stand about 387 feet (118 meters) tall and 30 feet (9 meters) wide.
To make the booster-and-rocket-ship system a reality, SpaceX is developing and launching prototypes in South Texas. The illustration at the top of this story compares two of those early test beds (at left) with Starship, NASA’s Saturn V, and the space agency’s planned SLS.
Starhopper, which is not designed to go to space, finished three rounds of demonstration launches from April through August. During its final flight, the rocket soared to about 490 feet (150 meters) into the air, hovered toward a nearby beach, and then landed on a concrete pad. (It has proven an irresistible subject of photographers even after being stripped of its Raptor rocket engine and other equipment.)
The current plan is to make Starship out of stainless steel, which Musk has said would make the launch system more durable and far less expensive.
SpaceX finished the outer hull of the Starship Mk 1 prototype just before Musk’s presentation. Musk has said that prototype could fly to 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) high in the next month or so, and possibly reach orbit by the end of the year.
“I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” Musk said over the weekend – though government officials may pump the brakes on those aspirations due to the existence of a nearby hamlet, called Boca Chica Village.
If realised, a fully fuelled Starship could weigh more than 9 million pounds (4 million kilograms) at the launch pad. That’s about 30% heavier than a Saturn V, though Starship would belch out twice as much thrust from its Super Heavy booster rocket.
If SpaceX engineers can achieve fully reusability and minimal refurbishment with Starship, the system stands to topple the existing rocket-launch industry.
Musk calculated that, in an ideal scenario, one Starship system could launch to space and return three times per day, or about 1,000 times a year. Assuming each launch can fly about 150 tons of payload into orbit, that works out to about 150,000 tons per year.
That’s more than 333 times the mass of the football field-size International Space Station. Meanwhile, he said, all of Earth’s rockets launching today might together deliver no more than 300 tons into space.
“We’re talking about something that is, with a fleet of Starships, 1,000 times more than all Earth capacity combined. All other rockets combined would be 0.1%, including ours,” Musk said on Saturday. “But you kind of need that if you’re going to build a city on Mars. It’s gotta be done.”
This story has been updated. It was originally published on July 19, 2019.