SpaceX founder Elon Musk detailed progress on the company’s next-generation Starship program Monday, saying the huge rocket could “probably” attempt its first launch into Earth orbit next year, and adding that the Starship will fly hundreds of missions before SpaceX puts people on-board.
Tapping into an ever-growing production complex in South Texas, SpaceX is building new Starship prototypes at a rate of multiple vehicles per month. Some of the prototypes are strictly for ground testing, but SpaceX’s next Starship testbed, designed SN6, could attempt a 500-foot (150-meter) hop test later this week.
The most recent Starship test craft, named SN5, was the first Starship with full-size propellant tanks to make a successful launch and landing. During SN5’s brief up-and-down test Aug. 4, the prototype flew to an altitude of 500 feet powered by a single methane-fueled Raptor engine, then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing pad.
Speaking by phone Monday during the virtual Humans to Mars Summit, Musk is “making good progress” on the Starship program. He stressed SpaceX’s advancements in scaling up production of the Starship test vehicles — which are made of stainless steel — at the company’s Boca Chica development and test facility near Brownsville, Texas.
“The main thing we needed to make progress on with Starship is the production system,” Musk said, adding that making a prototype was “relatively easy” by comparison.
Numerous structures, high bay assembly buildings, and elements of launch infrastructure have sprung up at Boca Chica over the last year. SpaceX assembled the first Starship prototype outdoors, using open-air welding, but teams are moving production into indoor, climate-controlled facilities.
Several Starship prototypes were destroyed during ground testing since SpaceX built the first Starship test vehicle last year. But SpaceX gathered critical data during those tests, allowing engineers to update design specifications and improve the Starship design.
“Building the production system so that we can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships — that’s the hard part,” Musk said Monday. “But we’ve been been making good progress on the productions system as people can see from the aerial photos of Boca Chica.
“A year ago, there was almost nothing there, and now we’ve got quite a lot of production capability,” Musk added. “We’re rapidly making more and more ships, and we’ll be starting production of the booster soon.”
Musk said SpaceX plans to start production of the first prototype of the Starship’s first stage booster — called the Super Heavy — later this week.
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Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, who established the company with a mission of sending people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.
SpaceX plans to fly Starship test vehicles and Super Heavy prototypes on hops to higher altitudes before attempting an orbital launch. Like the early Starship test flights, the first Super Heavy prototypes will fly to low altitudes with a subset of Raptor engines, beginning with two of the SpaceX-made powerplants, Musk said.
The higher-altitude Starship experiments will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future Starship vehicles, along with fins and other aerosurfaces. Higher-altitude Starship flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally goes to a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.
With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle will reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
For orbital missions, Starship will fly as the upper stage on top of the massive Super Heavy first stage booster. Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall, according to SpaceX’s website.
Both stages will come back to Earth for propulsive landings, much like the first stage on SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. That will make the Super Heavy and Starship fully reusable.
SpaceX says an operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, more than any rocket since NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 launcher.
Musk said Monday that engineers have tweaked the design of the Super Heavy booster by increasing the thrust of…