Elon Musk lost his claim as having the most powerful space-worthy rocket when NASA blasted its own mega rocket to the moon in November.
But the SpaceX founder could win back the title with his company’s next big project. Starship, SpaceX’s skyscraping rocket and spacecraft, will launch on its first mission soon. During the test flight, the colossal booster will separate about three minutes after liftoff and land in the Gulf of Mexico, according to federal filings(Opens in a new tab). The ship will fly in space around Earth at an altitude of over 150 miles, then splash down off the Hawaiian coast(Opens in a new tab).
This will be a crucial demonstration of hardware NASA is depending on to get humans back on the moon in the next few years. And, if successful, it’ll mean Musk is one small step closer to realizing his personal dream of building a city on Mars.
UPDATE: Feb. 9, 2023, 4:52 p.m. EST Musk tweeted on Feb. 9 that the company completed a major test of Starship’s 33 engines. During a firing of the booster on the ground, which was broadcast live on Twitter, 31 of the engines were lit for the full duration of the test, he said, which is “still enough engines to reach orbit.”
The billionaire business magnate has oversold timelines in the past, but here’s what we know so far.
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What is the SpaceX Starship?
Starship is a super-heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft, built to carry immense cargo and numerous astronauts into deep space.
The 400-foot-tall stainless steel tower looms over NASA’s rocket, the Space Launch System. It would take about five billboards stacked on top of the latter to measure up to Musk’s space vehicle. SpaceX estimates its rocket also has about twice as much thrust.
The rocket is made of stainless steel, a material Musk is particularly fond of due to its relatively low price. Unlike NASA’s mega moon rocket, which flies on super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen, this beast is fueled with 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen. The new fuel can be stored at more manageable temperatures(Opens in a new tab) than liquid hydrogen, meaning it doesn’t need as much insulation and is less prone to leaks, a problem that often stymies NASA launches.
SpaceX’s Starship is made of stainless steel and runs on liquid methane.
Starship is intended to evolve into a fully reusable launch and landing system, designed for trips to the moon, Mars, and other destinations. Its reusability is “the holy grail of space,” Musk said at a company event in South Texas last February, because it will make spaceflight more affordable to the average person.
“It’s a very hard thing to do,” he said. “It’s only barely possible with the physics of Earth.”
“It’s only barely possible with the physics of Earth.”
NASA tapped SpaceX to develop a human landing system version of Starship.
How will NASA use Starship?
NASA plans to use Starships to land astronauts on the moon during Artemis III and IV(Opens in a new tab), two upcoming missions which could come as early as 2025 and 2027, respectively.
The space agency has tapped SpaceX(Opens in a new tab) to develop a human landing system version of Starship with a $4 billion contract. As part of the deal, the company will need to demonstrate an uncrewed test flight to the moon beforehand.
During Artemis III, Starship will transfer astronauts from NASA’s Orion spacecraft to the lunar south pole and back. But in the fourth mission, Starship is expected to dock at a moon-orbiting space station, the yet-to-be-built Gateway, and ferry astronauts back and forth to the moon.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson told reporters in December that SpaceX appears to be on schedule with the contract and intends to do an uncrewed moon landing toward the end of this year. That mission would be followed by another landing with astronauts in late 2024.
“Slips are always possible because it’s a brand new system,” Nelson said. “But they have been quite impressive with what they have done with other systems.”
When is Starship’s first space launch?
SpaceX is indeed close to launching Starship, despite the fact that the company has not formally announced a date.
Shortly into January, the company stacked the jumbo rocket at its launch pad on Texas’ Gulf Coast, then loaded it with fuel for a so-called “wet dress rehearsal.” SpaceX said the test, a key practice run for any new rocket, was successful.
Next the team said it would disassemble Starship for a test fire of the rocket booster’s 33 Raptor engines, according to recent updates from SpaceX on Twitter.
“Slips are always possible because it’s a brand new system. But they have been quite impressive with what they have done with other systems.”
But in order for Starship to actually reach ignition, the Federal Aviation Administration must license the launch, which won’t be done until “SpaceX meets all licensing, safety and other regulatory requirements,” according to an agency statement given to Mashable in January when asked for the status. The review is ongoing, a spokesman said.
SpaceX will launch Starship for the first time from its spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas.
Credit: JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images
Where will Starship launch?
Perhaps surprisingly, Starship won’t lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where most space fans are accustomed to watching historically significant launches.
Instead, it will take off from Boca Chica, Texas, at SpaceX’s own spaceport. Eventually, the company will launch the rocket from a site under construction in the outer perimeter of the famous Florida pad that shot Apollo 11 to the moon.
“Their plan is that they’re going to do a few test flights there,” in South Texas, Nelson said. “Once they have the confidence, they will bring the missions to the Cape.”
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How likely is Starship to succeed?
SpaceX has launched partial prototypes of Starship to practice landing, and several exploded or crashed in the process. One succeeded in returning unscathed, however, in May 2021, after flying about six miles up in the sky.
Musk, who doesn’t parse words when it comes to the realities of spaceflight, once said Starship’s test in space wasn’t likely to succeed on the first try.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful.”
“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful,” he said during a video conference(Opens in a new tab) with a National Academies panel in 2021. “But I think we will make a lot of progress.”
What is SpaceX’s plan for Mars?
The SpaceX founder’s ultimate vision is to use a fleet of Starships to send 1 million(Opens in a new tab) humans to Mars by 2050.
To be clear, Musk doesn’t just want to establish a place for people to visit but a self-sustaining city. He imagines that, with a bit of warming, humans could restore a thick atmosphere and oceans on Mars, making it a more hospitable environment, even able to grow crops.
“There’s a fundamental juncture in the history of really any civilization on a single planet, which is, do you get to the second planet, or do you not?” Musk told the National Academies in 2021. “I propose we do, and I think we should as soon as possible.”
SpaceX test fired a Starship prototype spacecraft on the ground in December.
“There’s a fundamental juncture in the history of really any civilization on a single planet, which is, do you get to the second planet, or do you not?”
The spacecraft would be spacious enough for 100 passengers, along with their luggage, plus the materials to build homes, businesses, rocket fuel stations, and iron foundries.
The journey getting there would be long, Musk said, but the Starship would have entertainment(Opens in a new tab), such as zero-gravity games, movies, lectures, and a restaurant.
“It can’t feel cramped or boring,” he said at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico. “It’ll be really fun to go. You’ll have a great time.”