Musk: First Starship With Crew Could Launch Next Year

Musk: First Starship With Crew Could Launch Next Year

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk laid out updated plans tonight for his Starship/Super Heavy system designed to send people to the Moon and Mars. A Starship prototype, Mk1, is under construction at SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas and served as the backdrop for the briefing.  Musk laid out an ambitious schedule, saying the first crewed Starship flight to Earth orbit could happen as early as next year. That might come as a surprise to the Administrator of NASA, who tweeted before the briefing that what he wants is for SpaceX to deliver on its commercial crew system to take NASA astronauts to and from the space station, which is years late.

Musk whetted enthustiasts’ appetites three years ago when he revealed technical details of how he plans to fulfill his vision to send millions of people to live on Mars.  He sees that as a backup plan to preserve humanity in case a catastrophe dooms Earth.

What he described at that October 2016 International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico has changed with time, but the fundamental concept of a huge rocket capable of supporting 100 passengers on months-long voyages to and from Mars has not. Musk now has added the Moon to his destination list and already signed up a paying customer for the first flight around the Moon (not to land), planned for 2023.

Development of Starship, the system’s second stage that provides propulsion and crew quarters, is underway in two locations: Boca Chica and near Kennedy Space Center, FL.  Launches are planned from both sites.   Two Starhopper tests of the Raptor rocket engine that will be used to power Starship and Super Heavy took place at Boca Chica in July and August.

Artist’s illustration of stage separation between SpaceX’s Starship (with windows) and Super Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX.
Starship Mk1 at Boca Chica, TX, September 28, 2019. Elon Musk tweet.

The Starship Mk1 prototype, with three Raptor engines, will make its first flight from Boca Chica in the next one to two months Musk said.  He is asking the FAA for permission to fly it to 20 kilometers altitude after which is will return to land next to its launch site.

Musk minimized the work involved in building the Super Heavy first stage.  He said the biggest challenge is the production rate of the Raptor engines. The exact number of engines needed for Super Heavy appears to be in flux, with Musk saying tonight it could be 24 or 31.  He said the Starship second stage needs six (previously it was seven).

All in all, he acknowledged a lot of engines need to be produced for each vehicle and he plans to have several in production at the same time.  The current production rate is one engine every 8-10 days, but he expects that to increase to one per day by the first quarter of next year.

SpaceX has a number of other programs underway. Best known are its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets that not only launch satellites to space, but return to land on Earth for reuse.

Musk and other SpaceX officials routinely thank NASA publicly for awarding SpaceX the contract that enabled Falcon 9 to be built.  That was for NASA’s commercial cargo program, a public-private partnership (PPP) where SpaceX and NASA shared the costs of developing Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft to take cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The first flight was in 2012.  Two to four launches per year are routine now.

That is cargo.  NASA is using the same PPP model to get new systems to take people to and from ISS — the commercial crew program.  SpaceX and Boeing won those contracts. Both are taking much longer than anticipated.  Originally they were to be in service by 2015. Early delays could be attributed to Congress providing less funding than requested for the government’s share of the program, but it has been fully funded since FY2016.  Yet the launch dates continue to slip.  The companies  are required to conduct an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight before NASA certifies the systems for operational use.  Boeing has not conducted either test. SpaceX successfully flew its uncrewed test flight in March, but problems developed after that and the date for the crewed test flight is uncertain.

In a tweet yesterday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine chided SpaceX for all the attention being paid to Starship instead of its commercial crew program, telling the company “It’s time to deliver.”

Musk was asked about that tonight.  He said only about 5 percent of SpaceX’s resources are being used for the Starship program, while most of the company is working on Falcon rockets and Crew Dragon.

It would be ironic to say the least if the first crew launch of Dragon, under development for so long, takes place the same year as Starship, whose design only solidified in the past few months.

Musk’s original interest was only Mars, but as NASA’s attention shifted to the Moon under the Trump Administration, so did Musk’s.  Tonight he said a Moon base could be a good idea even if it is only for science.

Artist’s illustration of Starship supporting a base on the Moon. Credit: SpaceX

Musk’s passion continues to be Mars, however. He allowed that the first Starship flights to Mars will be uncrewed, but he downplayed the challenges of building life support systems to sustain crews on Mars journeys, saying it was not “super hard” compared to building the vehicle itself.

Note: This article was updated by embedding the video of the briefing on YouTube.

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