Space

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship event leaves a lot of questions around the company’s big rocket

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Image Credits: SpaceX

Elon Musk delivered an update on the company’s progress and plans for Starship, its next-generation launch spacecraft, from the Starship development site in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk had an impressive backdrop — the combined Starship and Super Heavy booster launch craft, standing nearly 400 feet tall. But much of what Musk had to say about Starship wasn’t new, and what he could share about the actual current state of where the project is with regards to the next steps of flight testing and development do raise some questions about how we get from here to the fanciful planet-jumping vision SpaceX depicted in a new concept video.

The ‘Noah’s Ark’ justification

Musk has repeatedly cited his existential justification for his mission to get humans to Mars and beyond on a more permanent basis, but at this update he had an addendum to that goal centered around broad Earth species preservation. He didn’t reference Noah’s Ark by name, but the analogy works, as you can see:

For those who really care about not just the humans but all the life on Earth it is very important essential that over the long term that we become a multi-planet species, and ultimately even go beyond the solar system and bring life with us. You know we are life stewards, life’s guardians, […] the creatures that we love, they can’t build spaceships, but we can and we can bring them with us and I think that’s pretty important for those that that care about the environment and care about all the creatures on Earth.

Ultimately the SpaceX CEO downplayed this justification for the project, assigning more weight to a second reason: Inspiration. Starship and making civilization multi-planetary is among the things that can make people “excited about the future,” he said — another note he’s struck previously when discussing SpaceX’s ambitions. Mostly this was part of a longer answer in response to criticisms that Musk and SpaceX are spending inordinate amounts of money on this that would better be spent addressing problems here on Earth, to which he said that he agrees “more than 99% of our resources should be oriented towards solving problems on Earth” and that that’s already the case.

The Starship launch process and rapid reusability

SpaceX has talked about and even shown concept animations of the Starship launch process before, but they had a new and more current version of what they envision on display for this update. The short clip, viewable above, more closely resembles the actual launch facility as it is currently set up in Boca Chica, but with some visual flair on the towers that lend them Blade Runner vibes.

The animation also shows in-orbit docking of two Starship spacecraft, which is not something SpaceX has modelled previously, though it has discussed how they’ll be able to refuel in space in order to top up for the trip to Mars. Musk said it’s something that the company still needs to solve in terms of the details of the docking process, but said it should actually be “way harder to dock with the space station than to dock with yourself” and noted that SpaceX spacecraft dock with the Space Station all the time.

Launch sites and required clearances

Another topic of discussion that came up, which lead to notably different information versus what’s been shared previously, was launch facilities for Starship. Musk said that because of the requirements of having large spans of relatively unpopulated area around the site, combined with the ability to quickly evacuate what population does exist, and necessities in terms of launch inclination and properly positioning spacecraft upon entrance to space, only two real options for Starship launch exist: The Starship development site in Texas where the event took place, and also Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Musk said he wasn’t actually privy to the specifics of where the site review for the Texas launches sit with the Federal Aviation Administration, but expects approvals to come through sometime in March. That said, there’s a Starship construction site and launch pad being worked on at Cape Canaveral for redundancy, which could become the primary site if environmental and FAA reviews don’t go SpaceX’s way in Texas. One reason SpaceX didn’t want to just stick with Florida’s Space Coast for Starship launches to begin with, Musk said, is that there’s already a lot of rocket traffic there and they didn’t want to disrupt any of those existing operations.

During a Q&A session, Musk also reiterated that he believes ultimately there will “probably” be a number of ocean or sea-based floating spaceports, like the ones that SpaceX is currently developing from old oil platforms, to help deal with the fact that the rockets taking off will be “quite loud” and will require that lift-offs happen at least “20 or 30 miles away from a major city” in order to minimize disruption. That’s important for any Earth-based point-to-point travel, he said.

Orbital timeline unclear

Most of what observers are looking forward to with Starship next is its first orbital test flight. Prototypes have flown already (minus the Super Heavy booster) to altitudes similar to those flown by commercial airliners, but nothing has yet gone beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Musk has been typically optimistic with timelines in past statements — including at the first Starship update in September 2019 when he anticipated that it could reach orbit within six months, and even fly people sometime in 2020.

That obviously didn’t happen.

Instead, timelines have constantly been shifting, from late 2021 to January 2022, and now to potentially March, with Musk saying only that he’s “highly confident that we’ll get to orbit this year” in terms of an actually successful orbital test.

The entire Starship Update presentation can be viewed below.

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