Next Launch:

Elon Raises the Stakes on Starship

Joey Roulette
Deven Perez
February 14, 20221:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Elon at Starbase, Texas, by Joey Roulette for Supercluster

Musk’s Boca Chica Rally Heralds New Starship Challenges.

Last week, Elon Musk was expected to reveal new timelines for key Starship tests, and details about the rocket’s potential passengers — or, at least, make the same wildly ambitious pronouncements he has for past presentations.

In 2019, before SpaceX flew its first humans to space on Crew Dragon, Musk estimated Starship could put its first passengers in orbit by 2020. The year before, he named the rocket system’s first official passenger, Yusaku Maezawa, and said Starship could make its first uncrewed trip to Mars by 2022. These were crazy announcements, and the public reaction was either hyped or incredulous.

Thursday night’s presentation, however, hit different. Musk, standing in front of a behemoth Starship prototype to evidence progress on SpaceX’s next-generation rocket system, focused little on the wacky expectations and lofty timelines he’s known for. He struck an existential tone from the start, rhapsodizing, as he often does, about making humanity multiplanetary, but peppering some emphasis on today’s challenges as a reason to move fast with Starship’s development.

Starship by Deven Perez for Supercluster

“To be frank, civilization is feeling a little fragile.”

“We need to seize the opportunity and to do it as quickly as possible,” Musk said.

In this chapter of Starship’s development, the stakes are higher than ever before, and Musk has a new audience to appeal to as SpaceX faces challenges from internal and external forces that could determine the success of the company’s next-generation rocket. That Musk convened a rally in Texas with few revelations shows, in some ways, that he sought to send a message not just to his fanbase, but to those who have a hand in Starship’s fate.

A Federal Aviation Administration-led review into the environmental impact of Starship launches at Starbase could conclude in the coming months that more scrutiny on the site is needed. This could set Starship development timelines back by up to eight months, Musk predicted.

“We don’t have a ton of insight into where things stand with the FAA. We have gotten a rough indication that there may be an approval in March, but that’s all we know,” he said. “I am optimistic that we will get approval. I think, objectively, this is not something that will be harmful to the environment.”

If regulators opt for a deeper environmental review, which could take up to a year to complete, Musk said SpaceX would shift Starship test launches to the company’s facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where SpaceX already has approval to launch Starship.

“I guess our worst case scenario is we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” Musk said. For the Boca Chica facilities, “it’s well suited to be our advanced R&D location, where we would try out new designs and new versions of the rocket,” he said, adding that Kennedy would be SpaceX’s “main operational launch site.”

It’s unclear, though, how easily SpaceX could pivot Starship launches from Boca Chica to Kennedy, as SpaceX’s pad 39A, leased from NASA, is key to the company’s ability to send American astronauts to the International Space Station and may not be able to withstand launch explosions.

“It'll take us a moment to achieve full reusability and full and rapid reusability,” he said, responding to a question about Starship’s cost.

Joey Roulette for Supercluster

“We’ll probably lose a few vehicles along the way.”

Inside SpaceX, development of Starship’s core engine, Raptor 2, has been held up by engineering difficulties in making sure the engine doesn’t melt itself while firing. “Not melting the chamber, which is very difficult, is the last remaining challenge,” Musk said. “But I think we’re very close to solving that.” That’s on top of a “Raptor production crisis,” Musk wrote in an email to employees last year, fear-mongering bankruptcy to instill urgency on a Raptor workforce that the chief executive has been increasingly dissatisfied with.

But Musk on Thursday night signaled improvements — there’s “a lot of momentum” in building Raptor’s production system, and he expected that by March, SpaceX would be able to build up to seven engines per week. The engine’s new design has been simplified and slimmed down, he said, and can generate some 230 metric tons of thrust, up from 185 metric tons of the first model. More redesigns could boost the thrust levels to 250 metric tons.

More technical challenges lie ahead. Before SpaceX can send American astronauts to the moon under its new $2.9 billion NASA contract, Starship must first demonstrate an ability to refuel itself in orbit. That requires many — possibly up to 16 — ”tanker” Starships going to orbit first, with the moonbound Starship filling up in orbit before it's trek to the lunar surface.

The first demonstration of this orbital tango could come, “optimistically, towards the end of next year,” Musk said. “I’d be surprised if it’s longer than two years for doing the refilling… Once we make this work, it’s an utterly profound breakthrough in access to orbit.”

Despite the challenges, Musk said he was confident Starship would reach orbit for the first time this year.

Joey Roulette
Deven Perez
February 14, 20221:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)