What Elon Musk did and didn’t reveal about SpaceX’s Starship rocket

Written By: Kenneth Chang © 2022 The New York Times Company The New York Times
New York Updated: Feb 11, 2022, 03:34 PM(IST)

SpaceX launches its first super heavy-lift Starship SN8 rocket during a test from their facility in Boca Chica, Texas, US (file photo). Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Over the past few years, SpaceX has made a series of test flights of the top part of the spacecraft that is to go to orbit and then return, showing how it might belly-flop in the atmosphere and then land. One of the flights, in May 2021, was a success while the others ended in explosions. To reach orbit requires the use of an even larger booster stage, known as Super Heavy, with dozens of engines. That has not yet been tested

On an outdoor stage in South Texas between screens with polished computer animations and a real gigantic shiny rocket behind him, Elon Musk provided his latest update on his dreams to send people to settle Mars on Thursday evening.

But while Musk’s presentation was vivid in detailing his vision of humanity’s interplanetary future, he was more circumspect about the operational details of the massive SpaceX rocket Starship that is central to those and other goals. The spacecraft must overcome numerous technical and regulatory hurdles before it can fly to orbit or fulfill a contract worth billions of dollars to land NASA astronauts on the moon, let alone colonize the red planet.

But on the stage Thursday night, Musk said he thought that Starship would be capable of establishing a self-sufficient city on Mars, which he said would require taking a million tons of material there from Earth.

“This is the first point in the 4.5-billion-year history of Earth that it has been possible,” Musk said. “We need to seize the opportunity and do it as quickly as possible. I want to be frank: Civilization is feeling a little fragile these days.”

After an animated video of an imaginary Mars colony serviced by SpaceX vehicles, Musk shouted, “Let’s make it real!”

For several years, SpaceX has been working on Starship, which would be the most powerful rocket ever. It would also, unlike any previous rocket, be entirely reusable. That has the potential for greatly cutting the cost of sending payloads to orbit — less than $10 million to take 100 tons to space — and it may be possible within a few years, Musk said.

Over the past few years, SpaceX has made a series of test flights of the top part of the spacecraft that is to go to orbit and then return, showing how it might belly-flop in the atmosphere and then land. One of the flights, in May 2021, was a success while the others ended in explosions. To reach orbit requires the use of an even larger booster stage, known as Super Heavy, with dozens of engines. That has not yet been tested.

Musk has, however, routinely made schedule predictions that were far too optimistic. When he first talked of his Mars rocket in 2016 — then an even larger design — he said that the first test trip to Mars, without people aboard, would launch in 2022, and that the first people going to Mars would be leaving two years later.

When Musk gave an update in September 2019, he predicted that the first orbital flight would occur within six months.

But with 2022 already here, SpaceX has yet to try an orbital launch of Starship.

In Thursday’s talk, he expressed confidence that would occur this year, but he remained vague about details.

His talk, at the site that SpaceX calls Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville, mixed in a variety of bawdy remarks while largely rehashing the vision he had described in the past including his arguments for why humanity needed to expand beyond Earth, as a backup plan for the survival of humankind.

He also responded to critics who say space is a waste of time and money, noting how little of the federal budget is actually directed to spaceflight and exploration.

“I’m just suggesting we’d like maybe half a percent or something, like that would probably be OK,” Musk said, referring to budgeting for space.

He mixed in technical details about improvements the company has made on the next version of the engines used for Starship. “So the only remaining issue that we’re aware of is melting the chamber,” Musk said, describing the intense heat generated by the engine. “Just not melting the chamber is very difficult,” Musk continued. “It’s kind of the last remaining challenge. But I think we’re very close to solving that.”

He was hopeful that an environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration would soon give SpaceX the go-ahead to try a launch to orbit from Boca Chica. “We have gotten sort of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March,” Musk said.

If that occurred, an orbital launch attempt could occur in “a couple of months” or potentially May, he said.

But he also conceded that if the FAA decided a more comprehensive environmental review was needed, SpaceX would shift the launches to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and that would cause a delay of six to eight months in order to modify the launching pad there for the massive Starship.

In addition to the eventual trips to Mars, Starship is to be used by NASA to ferry astronauts from orbit around the moon to the surface of the moon. The company won a $2.9 billion contract for the mission, outcompeting other bidders that included Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and defense contractor Dynetics. The moon landing is scheduled, on paper, for 2025, but it is expected to be delayed. In addition to work on Starship, the return of astronauts to the moon requires the Space Launch System, another large rocket under development by NASA that is also behind schedule.

For the moon mission, SpaceX would also have to be able to refill the propellant tanks of a Starship while in orbit around Earth. Musk said a series of Starship tankers would launch every few hours taking propellant for the moon-destined rocket.

Musk said he did not see a conflict between the NASA work and his bigger dreams.

“We’re going to make a lot of ships, a lot of boosters,” he said. “Adding legs to land on the moon, that can be done pretty quickly.”

And Musk remained confident that his giant rocket would work. Even though there would most likely be bumps in the road along the way, he said, “we’ll get it done.”

Read in App