Musk: “Decent Chance” of Starship Reaching Space Next Time

Musk: “Decent Chance” of Starship Reaching Space Next Time

Elon Musk thinks Starship has a “decent chance” of reaching space on the next launch after he changed the design of how the first and second stages separate. On the only launch attempt so far, the stages failed to detach from each other contributing to the loss of the vehicle about four minutes into flight. SpaceX is awaiting regulatory approval to try again. Musk also forecasts an uncrewed Starship landing on Mars in about 4 years and hopes to keep the “tiny candle of consciousness that is humanity” burning.

Starship’s first flight on April 20, 2023 ended in an explosion over the Gulf of Mexico following an automated destruct command as the two-stage vehicle spun around and around without separating. An investigation by SpaceX, overseen by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, was completed last month, but the FAA will not approve another launch until SpaceX has demonstrated compliance with 57 of 63 corrective actions. Musk shared a list of those corrective actions on his social media platform X (previously known as Twitter).

The FAA regulates, facilitates and promotes commercial space launches and reentries, but in this case is not the only federal agency involved. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also must agree since the April 20 launch spewed chunks concrete and other debris into protected environmental areas. Several environmental groups are suing the FAA for not executing its environmental review responsibilities adequately.

Starship on the launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, April 16, 2023. The silver section is the first stage, Super Heavy. The second stage, Starship, is black because it is covered in thermal protection tiles. The combination is also referred to as Starship. Photo credit: SpaceX

Speaking virtually to the International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan today, Musk explained a major design change SpaceX has made since then. They now will use “hot staging” where the second stage will start firing its engines while remaining attached to the first stage as it is still firing its own engines. That will reduce the loss of velocity when the two do separate.

Starship explodes over the Gulf of Mexico about 4 minutes after its first launch on April 20, 2023. Screengrab.

Musk was interviewed by International Astronautical Federation President Clay Mowry. Asked whether he was optimistic Starship would reach orbit next time, Musk said he gave it a “decent chance” while emphasizing he does not want to set expectations too high.

He also clarified that Starship will not actually go into orbit. After the first stage, called Super Heavy  or “the booster,” separates and falls into the water, the second stage, Starship, will travel about two-thirds of the way around the world eastward from Starbase in Boca Chica, TX to the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii where it will splash down. (Somewhat confusingly, Starship is the name of the second stage, but is also used for the combination of the two stages.)

Musk is ready to launch. He has stacked and destacked the enormous rocket twice already in preparation. The first and second stages together are 394 feet (120 meters) high and 29.5 feet (9 meters) in diameter. Super Heavy uses 33 liquid methane-liquid oxygen (methalox) engines while Starship has six.

For the first launch, a simple concrete pad was underneath those 33 engines and the 16 million pounds of thrust pulverized it, spewing a cloud of debris that not only impacted environmentally protected areas, but fell over the nearby town of Port Isabel. SpaceX has redesigned the launch pad using steel and a water deluge system.

Cloud of debris emanates from SpaceX’s launch pad during first Starship launch, April 20, 2023. Screengrab.

Starship is the biggest rocket ever built. The closest was the Soviet Union’s N-1 with its 29 engines, but it was discontinued after four failures. Musk said he’s been learning lessons from the N-1, which was a “great design” but lacked “sufficient ground testing.”

Starship has about twice the thrust of NASA’s new Space Launch System and is reusable. SLS, powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, generates 8.8 million pounds of thrust and successfully completed its first test flight around the Moon last year as part of the the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface. SLS is not reusable.

NASA contracted with SpaceX to use a version of Starship as the Human Landing System for the first two Artemis lunar landing missions in a few years, but Starship cannot go directly to the Moon. It must refuel in Earth orbit. NASA’s Jim Free, who oversees Artemis, recently cited demonstrating that refueling capability as one of the major HLS challenges he’s watching.

Today Musk downplayed the difficulty of building fuel depots in orbit and transferring cryogenic fuels from one vehicle to another, which has never been done in weightlessness. The fuel depots will be Starships full of fuel instead of other cargo and it will be easier to dock one Starship with another than a Dragon with the International Space Station since they have the same design, he said, but did not provide details of the propellant transfer itself.

Illustration of the Human Landing System (HLS) version of Starship on the Moon. Credit: SpaceX. SpaceX is under contract to NASA to provide the first two HLS systems for the Artemis program with an uncrewed test flight in 2024 and crewed landings in 2025 (Artemis III) and 2028 (Artemis IV).

Musk has bold plans for Starship not only for launching satellites into orbit or Human Landing Systems to the Moon, but point-to-point transportation here on Earth. He envisions half-hour trips from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, joking that the journey will be so short bathrooms won’t be needed. People could have “breakfast in LA, lunch in London, dinner in Singapore and then be back in LA for bedtime.”

His boldest plan, though, is sending millions of people to live on Mars. He calculates it will take a million tons of useful payload to support a “city on Mars” and that in turn will require 5 million tons of payload to Earth orbit. He envisions “thousands” of Starship launches per year to achieve that.

Asked when he anticipates the first Starship landing on Mars, he replied it will be about 3-4 years until the first uncrewed trip.

Musk is renowned for overly optimistic time frames. At the 2017 IAC meeting in Adelaide, Australia he forecast the first uncrewed cargo Mars landing in 2022 and the first people on Mars in 2024. That was an update of his iconic talk at the 2016 conference in Guadalajara, Mexico where he first introduced the idea of what he then called the Interplanetary Transport System or Mars Transporter.  In just these intervening few years, the space community has become so accustomed to Musk’s grandiose visions that today’s discussion seemed tame by comparison.

He often describes his quest to send humans to Mars as a backup plan in case a catastrophe destroys life here. He wants the human race to survive. Replying to a question about what motivated him to pursue space activities and what he would tell young people today, Musk talked about reading Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and how it made him realize the importance of knowing what questions to ask in order to understand the universe.

And we don’t yet know what questions to ask. So I’m just curious as to the nature of reality. Where does it all go to, where does it come from? Where are the aliens, for example? Are there aliens? Are we alone? People often ask me if I’ve seen any evidence of aliens and I unfortunately have seen no evidence of aliens yet. We are the aliens as far as we know. I think if anyone would know it would probably be me and I’ve not seen any evidence of aliens.

So what that perhaps suggests is that this tiny candle of consciousness that is humanity is all that exists in a vast universe. And we should do everything we can to ensure that the candle does not go out. — Elon Musk

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