SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shows off Starship prototype, gives rocket update

SpaceX applied for clearance to communicate with its Starship spacecraft during its final test launch in October.
Image: YouTube | SpaceX

People cheered for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as he stood before them in front of the company’s Starship Mk1 prototype rocket. Musk unveiled the massive spacecraft in Boca Chica, Texas on September 28. He also discussed the craft’s progress in a live stream to a broadcast audience.

Musk delivered the presentation on the eleventh anniversary of SpaceX reaching orbit for the first time with its Falcon 1 rocket. The company honored the special occasion with a Twitter post.

At 165 feet tall, the towering steel structure made the world-renowned executive look tiny. The rocket even dwarfed the Falcon 1, which stood alongside it.

Musk repeatedly noted how windy it was while outlining some Starship updates in an hour-long presentation.

Behold the Steel Beast

A group of journalists, space enthusiasts, and SpaceX fans gathered to hear what the visionary corporate leader had to say about the gleaming spaceship that stood behind him.

Musk began his speech by acknowledging that there are “many troubles in the world.” Despite this, he pointed out that we “also need things to make us excited to be alive, that make us glad to wake up in the morning and be fired up about the future.”

“Space exploration,” he said, “is one of those things. Becoming a spacefaring civilization, being out there among the stars — this is one of the things I know makes me glad to be alive, and I think it makes many people glad to be alive …”

Words like “gigantic” and “massive” don’t seem big enough to describe the rocket’s size.

Starship is a steel beast of enormous proportions. Musk explained that building it out of stainless steel instead of carbon fiber significantly reduced costs. Overall, the steel’s price was just two percent of the cost of carbon fiber.

What’s mind-blowing is that the 16-story first stage is going to ride on top of a Super Heavy booster. The combined rocket parts will stand almost 390 feet tall. That’s taller than NASA’s (363 foot) Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon.

The Super Heavy can hold up to 37 Raptor engines with a minimum of 24 for use in orbit. Musk noted that the powerful booster would have “twice the thrust of the Saturn V.”

Launching a ‘Rapidly Reusable’ Rocket is Mission Critical

For now, Starship rests in its solitary state of grandeur. Six Raptor engines are hidden underneath its skirt. The rocket’s size makes it stand out among SpaceX’s smaller fleet of spacecraft. However, unlike other rockets in history, the company aims for the Starship system to be “totally reusable.”

Musk said that this feature is a critical part of creating a spacefaring civilization and making “space travel like air travel.” It will also reduce the cost of space travel.

Furthermore, SpaceX aims to conduct orbital refueling of the Starship system. This function is another crucial step in enabling longer space journeys⁠—such as to Mars.

Aggressive Starship Goals

The tech billionaire also told attendees that the Starship Mk1 is going to blast off to 65,000 feet and then land back on Earth “in about one or two months.”

Scheduling another test flight in such a short timeframe seems like an aggressive goal. The announcement follows SpaceX’s application to the FCC to perform an “experimental launch, landing, and recovery of the Starship suborbital test vehicle” in Boca Chica.

The huge rocket will fly much farther than SpaceX’s recent Starhopper test flight. That craft rose to about 150 feet before touching back down.

Later, Musk set an even loftier Starship goal. He said, “This is going to sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months.”

Given that the Super Heavy booster is not even built yet, Musk’s accelerated timeline seems questionable. Nonetheless, the CEO’s sense of urgency is in step with NASA’s own bold plan to send the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024.

NASA is notably counting on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to transport astronauts to the ISS from American soil. The U.S. space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, reminded Musk about this partnership in a Twitter post the day before his Starship presentation.

On Saturday, Musk responded to Bridenstine’s comments. He said that “the vast majority” of SpaceX’s resources are focused on its current rockets and capsules, including NASA’s Crew Dragon capsule.

As with all proposed launches, any number of unforeseen factors can cause unexpected liftoff delays. It will be interesting to see how closely SpaceX can adhere to its Starship launch goals.

Trips to Mars and More

Projections on the Hawthorne, California-based firm’s website offer aspirational goals of sending its first cargo mission to Mars by 2022. The second mission is slated to carry cargo and crew to the Red Planet by 2024.

Beyond interplanetary travel to moon bases and cities on Mars, SpaceX has other plans for the Starship system. For example, it can make trips back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS). Or, the massive rocket could transport satellites to Earth orbit and beyond at a lower cost than current SpaceX Falcon spacecraft.

Finally, people who prefer to stay semi-grounded could make ultra-fast trips on Starship to anywhere in the world in less than an hour.