NASA plans to use it to land astronauts on the moon, but that could be just the beginning of new possibilities — if it flies
16 April 2023 at 8 a.m. EDT
As early as Monday morning, SpaceX is expected to launch its own massive rocket for the first time, a nearly 400-foot-tall behemoth known as Starship. Powered by a staggering 33 first-stage engines, it would have nearly twice the thrust of the SLS. And unlike NASA’s SLS, which falls into the ocean after its payload is launched, the stainless steel ship is designed to return to a soft landing on Earth, to be used again.
The Federal Aviation Administration granted SpaceX a license for the launch on Friday, and SpaceX said it is aiming for a two-and-a-half-hour window beginning at 8 a.m. Eastern Monday for the launch, with other options in the following days if a delay is necessary.
If SLS represents a traditional government approach to rocket design — one that uses hardware originally designed in the 1970s for the Space Shuttle — Starship epitomizes spaceflight’s modern, entrepreneurial approach. Starship is designed to be refueled in orbit, allowing SpaceX to hoist an unprecedented amount of cargo and potentially dozens of people into space. And because it will be reusable, it is expected to be far less expensive to operate than the SLS.
The promise of Starship and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s claim that the vehicle “could make life on Mars real” has attracted legions of fans. For years, they’ve blocked Musk’s presentations on the rocket, obsessively tracked design iterations and made pilgrimages to SpaceX’s Starship facility in a remote corner of South Texas that the company calls Starbase.
But Starship has also won over NASA, which has placed the rocket at the center of its exploration goals. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use it as the vehicle that would land astronauts on the lunar surface, giving it a lead role in NASA’s campaign to return people to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. .
The launch will be the first time SpaceX has attempted to fly the entire vehicle — the Starship spacecraft mounted atop the Super Heavy booster. A successful launch would be no small feat, especially given the size and complexity of the rocket. “With a test like this, success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the likelihood of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances the development of Starship,” SpaceX said in a statement.
Musk said at a Morgan Stanley conference last month that there is a 50 percent chance the first flight will succeed.
“I’m not saying it will go into orbit, but I guarantee excitement,” he said. “It won’t be boring.”
If it flies successfully, the Starship will serve not only as a vehicle for exploration, but also for science. With its ability to lift enormous amounts of mass into orbit, astronomers and astrophysicists are looking to rethink the kinds of telescopes and instruments that can be launched into space.
In its fully reusable configuration, Starship would be able to lift more than 100 tons — more than 220,000 pounds — to the moon and even more to low Earth orbit, according to a 2020 SpaceX user manual.
By contrast, the current version of the SLS is capable of hoisting 27 tons, or 59,500 pounds, to the moon, according to NASA. With a pending upgrade, that will increase to 38 tons or 83,700 pounds.
Inside the rockets that NASA and SpaceX plan to send to the moon
“Assuming it is successful, Starship will dramatically improve our space capabilities in ways that will qualitatively change how astrophysics missions can be built,” predicted an article in Physics Today written by a trio of astronomers and physicists. “…Astrophysics missions to space have always been tightly limited by the capabilities of the launch vehicles, which have not changed significantly in two decades.”
A report last year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “Starships can accommodate payloads significantly larger and heavier than traditional NASA planetary payloads, reducing the need for the costly reductions in size and mass required for traditional NASA payloads. .”
“It’s pretty simple, really. “When you design missions for astronomy, you’re very limited by the mass available in the rocket,” Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard and the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in an interview. The James Webb Space Telescope, for example, had to be designed to be foldable so that it could be stuffed into the nose cone of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched it into space. The total mass was nearly 14,000 pounds, far less than what the Starship would be able to accommodate.
“Your whole development process, your whole design process, becomes so much easier,” he said. “And that saves huge amounts of cost.”
In fact, the Starship’s cargo space is so generous that it may take a while for the space industry to grow into it.
“Starship is too big for most payloads today,” said Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm. “If it’s cheap enough, it might not matter. And it could serve as a direct replacement for less capable vehicles in the short term. The real impact will be new concepts that take advantage of the vehicle’s enormous capabilities. It will take years for the market to design and produce payloads that are truly optimized for Starship.”
Starship already has a few customers. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has booked a trip around the moon with several other private citizens. Another billionaire, Jared Isaacman, who commanded a flight of private citizens into orbit of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in 2021, plans to fly on Starship’s first manned mission. However, it is unclear when any of these flights will take place.
In the short term, SpaceX needs Starship to begin flying regularly so it can put the next generation of Starlink internet satellites into orbit. They are more capable than the satellites in the current constellation, which are launched in batches by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But the new satellites are much heavier, about 1.25 tons, Musk has said, and will require Starship’s increased power.
But first SpaceX must launch successfully.
SpaceX blew up a series of spacecraft prototypes during an earlier test campaign, flying them about six miles up, then bringing them back down in landing attempts that ended in fiery explosions until the company finally aborted the landing.
Last year, SpaceX won preliminary approval for the first launch by the Federal Aviation Administration, which required it to take numerous measures designed to protect the surrounding environment and reduce the impact of its activities on a nearby public beach and wildlife sanctuary before being granted a launch license.
The upcoming launch attempt is far more ambitious than the previous tests. The Starship will be stacked atop the 33-engine Super Heavy booster, which is expected to send the Starship hurtling around much of the globe before falling back into the atmosphere and crashing into the ocean off the coast of Hawaii.
If the launch fails, Musk said SpaceX would try again soon. “We’re building a whole series of starships in South Texas, so I think we have hopefully an 80 percent chance of reaching orbit this year.”
For this attempt, SpaceX will not attempt to land either the Starship or its booster. But eventually, it hopes the booster will fly back to the nearly 500-foot-tall launch tower, where it will be caught by a pair of arms that act as giant chopsticks.
The Starship itself, having completed its mission and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, would turn horizontally, fall back towards Earth in a kind of belly flop, then right itself, re-ignite its engines and touch down softly on a landing pad . It’s a technique the company says will allow “missions to destinations across the solar system where runways do not exist.”
Once operational, Musk said, Starship could lower “the cost of access to space by orders of magnitude,” allow people to go to Mars and ultimately achieve its goal of making humanity “multiplanetary.”
“We don’t want to be one of those lame one-planet civilizations,” he said.