SpaceX has been advancing the development of Starship, the largest ultra-super-heavy reusable launch system ever designed in history, at a jaw-dropping pace — and CEO Elon Musk is “comfortable” it will reach orbit sometime next year.
Musk made the comments — which often veered into the philosophical — at the National Academies’ first virtual joint fall meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy. The talk, titled simply “SpaceX Starship Discussion,” and subsequent Q&A session gave Musk the opportunity to respond to questions from Academy members on the next-gen system’s technical and operational details.
Musk is aiming for SpaceX to complete work on the launch pad and launch tower at Starbase, the company’s sprawling facility in Boca Chica, Texas, later this month, with the first orbital launch set for January 2022. That would be followed by possibly a dozen additional launches, possibly more, throughout the rest of 2022, Musk said.
That doesn’t mean Starship will reach orbit in January, however, as Musk was careful to note. “There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch,” he said. “So I would not say that it is likely to be successful, but I think we will make a lot of progress.”
The other major barrier to a January launch is regulatory approval. SpaceX’s launch activities at Starbase are currently undergoing an environmental assessment with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA said earlier this week that it would wrap up that review by December 31, so if all goes according to Musk's plans, a January launch is the earliest feasible date.
Musk also estimated it could start selling Starship launches at prices cheaper than the Falcon 9 in around two years, which are even earlier than the timeline part of SpaceX’s proposal for NASA’s Human Landing System. (SpaceX won the sole bid to develop the HLS, which will transport humans to the moon for the first time since the days of the Apollo program, for NASA’s Artemis program. That launch, dubbed Artemis 3, is now scheduled to launch in 2025.)
Starship is moving fast
It’s hard to overstate the scale of Starship, which includes the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket, compared to all other launch systems in history. Fully assembled, it stands 394 feet tall (by comparison, NASA’s in-development Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft is 322 feet fully stacked). Starship could have the capacity to repeatedly launch more than 100 tons into orbit and function as what Musk described as “a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system.”
But Musk isn’t aiming to build one, or two, or even 10 Starships; instead, he estimated during the talk that humanity may need around 1,000 launch systems to make life truly multiplanetary. And SpaceX has built a factory to mass manufacture them — or as close to mass manufacturing as you could get.
And the company has been moving fast on its development. Back in May, SpaceX flew the 15th prototype of Starship, and the launch vehicle reached around 30,000 feet with a successful upright landing. It was the first time a test concluded with the launch vehicle intact.
“The overarching goal of SpaceX has been to advance space technology such that humanity can become a multiplanet species and ultimately, a spacefaring civilization, and to make true the things that we read about in science fiction, and have them not always be fiction,” he told National Academies' members.
“I think this is very important for the long-term preservation of the light of consciousness.”
Rewatch his talk here: