SpaceX is on the cusp of launching its gigantic Starship megarocket now that a launch rehearsal and static fire test is complete. Here’s what you need to know.
SpaceX is currently dominating the spaceflight industry with its freakishly reliable Falcon 9 rocket. Now the highly innovative company, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, is preparing to take its next giant leap with the inaugural launch of the Starship rocket. We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the fully reusable megarocket and its potential to revolutionize spaceflight as we know it.
Why is SpaceX building Starship?
SpaceX wants to develop a fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle for transporting satellites, spacecraft, cargo, and crews to “Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond,” according to the company. Starship is poised to be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, surpassing even NASA’s Saturn V and Space Launch System (SLS).
Once operational, the megarocket will seriously disrupt commercial spaceflight industry owing to its reusability (which lowers launch costs), its large payload capacity, and lifting power. The rocket, in addition to serving both public and private sectors, will further SpaceX’s ambitions, as the Elon Musk-led company continues to build its Starlink megaconstellation, charter space tourism flights, and look ahead to potential crewed missions to Mars.
When will Starship perform its first orbital launch?
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SpaceX had initially hoped to launch Starship on its first orbital flight test in early 2022, but the maiden voyage has been delayed several times over the past few months due to developmental delays. The company is currently targeting mid to late April for the first orbital test, which Musk predicts has a 50% chance of succeeding. The exact timing of the launch “depends on FAA license approval,” Musk tweeted on March 16.
What’s the backstory on this megarocket?
SpaceX’s desire for an oversized launch vehicle dates back to 2005, at a time when SpaceX had yet to launch its first rocket. It even had a name, BFR, in which the B stood for “big,” R for “rocket,” and F for “Falcon” (or a rude superlative you’re likely familiar with). Musk envisioned a rocket capable of delivering 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, which would’ve put the company “in competition with NASA’s planned shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher,” according to a 2005 article published in The Space Review. That NASA rocket, now known as SLS, finally launched last year, and of course, Starship has yet to launch.
It wasn’t until September 2016 that SpaceX officially announced its intention to build a heavy-lift rocket—an announcement that coincided with the first successful test of a methane-oxygen engine known as Raptor. Starship has gone through multiple name changes, including the Mars Colonial Transporter, the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), and a reversion to the original Big Falcon Rocket. Now officially known as Starship, the rocket has undergone some design changes over the years, but several key elements have remained the same, namely its two-stage design and methane-fueled engines.
How much is it costing to build Starship?
Musk previously estimated that the total development cost of Starship will land somewhere between $2 billion and $10 billion. He refined this figure in September 2019, saying it’s “probably closer to two or three [billion] than it is to 10 [billion],” as he told CNN Business.
Importantly, SpaceX isn’t footing the entire bill. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who has chartered a future Moon-bound flight aboard Starship, paid an undisclosed amount for the trip. At the time of the announcement, Musk said Maezawa is “paying a lot of money that would help with the ship and its booster” and that “he’s ultimately paying for the average citizen to travel to other planets.” NASA is also subsidizing Starship. The space agency has two separate contracts with SpaceX amounting to more than $4 billion, in which the company will modify Starship to serve as two distinct human landing systems for Artemis 3 and Artemis 4.
Will Starship be profitable for SpaceX?
Only time will tell. Back in February 2022, Musk claimed that each launch of Starship could cost as low as $1 million per flight, which would translate to $10 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) to low Earth orbit. That’s an astoundingly low figure, especially when considering SLS, with its estimated price per launch of $4.1 billion, which amounts to $60,000 per 2.2 pounds, according to Science News. That said, SpaceX will require a rapid-fire launch cadence and a steady stream of customers to make Starship profitable.
That Starship is fully reusable is another reason to argue in favor of profitability. Rather than having to build the vehicle from scratch each time, like NASA currently has to do with the Artemis 2 SLS, SpaceX can simply refuel a recently-returned Starship, pack a new payload, and blast if off on another mission.
Of course, SpaceX still needs to prove that rocket of this size can be reflown. To that end, the company is developing a “thermal protection system,” a series of hexagonal heat shield tiles, to protect the rocket’s belly during atmospheric reentry. And during its descent, the vehicle will perform a “belly flop” maneuver to “reduce its vertical velocity before using the engines and fins to turn and land the vehicle in a vertical orientation,” according to NASASpaceflight.
How powerful is Starship?
At liftoff, the 394-foot-tall (120-meter) Starship will exert an eye-watering 16.5 million pounds of thrust, a result of all 33 Raptor engines firing at the same time. Such power will enable the launch vehicle to deliver 150 metric tons (330,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit. Once operational, it’ll be the most powerful rocket in human history. By comparison, SLS exerts 8.8 million pounds of thrust, while NASA’s old Saturn V exerted 7.8 million pounds of thrust.
The 10-foot-tall Raptor is the straw that stirs the drink, each of them generating 500,000 pounds of thrust. SpaceX introduced a new version of the engine early last year, dubbed Raptor 2, which features a streamlined design and increased thrust.
Roughly six minutes after launch, the 230-foot-tall (69-meter) Super Heavy booster will separate and return to Earth. The upper stage Starship, which doubles as a spacecraft, will then take over the lifting duties, which it will do with the 3.2 million pounds of thrust provided by its six Raptor engines.
The upper stage itself measures 164 feet tall (50 meters) and features a gigantic fairing measuring 59 feet tall (18 meters) and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. The resulting payload volume, at 38,800 cubic feet, will be the largest across the industry. SpaceX says the payload area can be configured for either cargo or crews. Like the booster, the upper stage will perform vertical landings for reusability.
What is “Mechazilla” and how will the booster land?
Starship is fully reusable, but while the upper stage is built to perform unassisted vertical landings, the Super Heavy booster will get some help in the form of a 469-foot-tall (142 meters) launch and catch tower. Following stage separation, Super Heavy will return from whence it came, landing directly onto the launch pad with the assistance of two mechanical arms, known amongst SpaceX employees as “chopsticks.” With this design, the booster won’t require landing legs, which would’ve added extra weight and added technological complexity (that’s a lot of weight for legs to bear).
The tower and its arms, collectively known as “Mechazilla,” is also used during stacking. In a Federal Aviation Administration filing submitted in 2021, SpaceX said the launch tower is meant to “lift its new rocket and booster on the launch mount, and to catch the super-heavy booster upon return from launch.” The launch and catch tower “will be constructed out of structural steel trusses to allow the mechanical arms to lift vehicles,” SpaceX added.
The precise method for catching the descending booster is not entirely clear, but the two arms will likely help to guide, balance, and snare the rocket as it settles back onto the pad. Using this method, SpaceX eventually hopes to launch the same Starship three times per day. SpaceX currently has two Starship launch towers, one at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and one under construction at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
What tests of Starship has SpaceX performed to date?
SpaceX performed several suborbital tests of the Starship upper stage from December 2020 to May 2021. These events made for must-watch live streaming, as some of the attempted landings resulted in explosions big enough to make even Michael Bay blush. These tests even prompted an FAA investigation. The last of these suborbital tests, performed with prototype SN15 on May 5, 2021, finally resulted in a safe vertical landing.
Super Heavy has obviously not flown, but it went through a series of limited firing tests (one of which caused a tremendous explosion beneath the booster on July 11, 2022), tanking tests, and a full wet dress rehearsal on January 24, 2023, in which the booster was filled with roughly 5,000 tons of liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellant. The booster was finally put through a full-scale static fire test on February 9, during which 31 of its 33 engines ignited. Musk seemed unfazed about the two engines not taking part, saying the rocket would still have enough power to reach orbit.
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The Starbase orbital launch pad had “no water deluge system, flame trench, or thrust diverter” to reduce or dissipate the energy produced during the test, but despite this, the “flat concrete directly below the pad appeared to survive almost eight million pounds of thrust and brutal heat with only minor [fragmenting] and damage,” according to Teslarati.
How will the first orbital Starship mission unfold?
After launching from Starbase in Boca Chica, the booster will separate, perform a partial return, and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico (a return at the catch tower isn’t likely during the first launch). The Starship upper stage will keep going in its attempt to enter Earth orbit, rising to a target altitude of approximately 155 miles (250 kilometers). Starship won’t attempt a full orbit of Earth, and instead re-enter and splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
What kinds of regulatory hurdles does SpaceX need to address?
SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility is home to threatened wildlife, including at-risk shorebirds. An environmental assessment completed by the Federal Aviation Administration in June 2022 listed 75 environmental mitigation actions that SpaceX needed to complete to qualify for a Starship launch license. These mitigations included measures to ensure good air quality, reduce noise pollution, prevent wildfires, and protect cultural resources, water quality, and wildlife. SpaceX has said very little about its efforts to meet the FAA’s demands, but its efforts to proceed with a launch in mid-April suggests the company is confident that it will receive the required launch permit.
In 2022, the Sierra Club and a south Texas group of indigenous peoples unsuccessfully sued the Texas General Land office, the complaint being the claim that the repeated beach closures—a result of SpaceX Starship tests—were unconstitutional.
Why doesn’t Starship have an abort system?
One of the more controversial aspects of Starship is the complete absence of an emergency launch abort system. Many launch systems, both past and present, feature abort systems, which quickly jetsons crew capsules away from failing rockets. NASA’s Orion, Russia’s Soyuz, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, and Boeing’s Starliner, all feature abort systems, but Starship does not and will not.
“Rockets carrying people should have abort systems,” United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno tweeted in December 2019 in response to this omission. It’s worth noting that NASA’s Space Shuttle didn’t feature an abort system, which proved deadly during the 1986 Challenger disaster. And of course, passenger aircraft don’t feature abort systems, either, and that doesn’t prevent (most of) us from flying.
Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut provided a detailed explanation in a 2019 article, saying Starship doesn’t have an abort system on account of Starship’s engine reliability (a failing Raptor engine won’t affect the performance of neighboring engines) and that the upper stage could conceivably serve as an escape vehicle should the booster fail. Dodd even questioned the need for an abort system, saying that, to date, “a mechanical abort system has only saved lives twice, may have prevented one tragedy and in one case caused a death.” Musk himself has said that atmospheric reentries are more dangerous than launches. That said, it’s an open question as to whether NASA, or the FAA for that matter, will buy into all of this when considering Starship as a launch vehicle fit for humans.
How does SpaceX plan to use Starship?
The megarocket will, first and foremost, serve as a satellite delivery mechanism. SpaceX will use Starship to deploy its oversized next-generation Starklink satellites, and also satellites belonging to paying customers, whether private or public. Due to its immense lifting capacity and oversized fairing, Starship should enable entirely new possibilities for future spacecraft—including spacecraft larger than the recently deployed Webb Space Telescope. Starship could also deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station, as it’ll be capable of docking at the station.
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The rocket will also open up incredible opportunities for space tourism, such as trips around the Moon, of which two are currently planned, including the “dearMoon” mission chartered by Maezawa and second mission that will include billionaire Dennis Tito.
How will Elon Musk use Starship to colonize Mars?
Starship is key to Musk’s long-stated ambition of colonizing Mars. The CEO has articulated a plan in which 100 Starships are built each year across a 10-year period. After refueling in orbit, the 1,000 Starships would depart for the Red Planet in batches across 30-day windows that open once every 26 months. Assuming these flights can begin five years from now, Musk figures his Starship could deliver one million inhabitants to Mars by 2050.
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That may sound great on paper, but the colonization of Mars isn’t simple, and many hurdles, whether developmental, social, or logistical, are bound to get in the way.
How does NASA plan to use Starship?
NASA needs Starship for for landing humans safely on the Moon during its Artemis program. After reaching lunar orbit in NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the astronauts will transport themselves to the awaiting Starship, and then descend to the lunar surface. Once their mission is complete, the astronauts will use Starship to return to Orion and head back home.
Under its two NASA contracts, SpaceX is required to build two Human Landing System Starships, one for Artemis 3 and one for Artemis 4, which are scheduled to launch in 2025 and 2027, respectively. The second HLS Starship will have an expanded feature set compared to the first.
Though not yet formalized, NASA could also use Starship to deliver cargo and other supplies to the lunar environment, such as equipment needed to build the upcoming lunar Gateway space station. And for future missions to the lunar surface, Starship could dock with Gateway, offering them a place to stay before their lunar descent.
Many of the topics discussed in this article are subject to change and ongoing developments, please check back for updates. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on Twitter and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.
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