Barring surprises, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk remains on track to present the first major update on Starship’s development since September 2019 – almost two and a half years ago.
While it’s no longer clear that SpaceX will be able to stack Starship on top of Super Heavy in time for the fully-stacked rocket to serve as an imposing backdrop for the media event, Musk seemingly remains on track to update the world on the status of Starship development as early as 8pm CT (6pm PT, 9pm ET) on Thursday, February 10th (02:00 UTC 11 Feb). Assuming the event is similar to the SpaceX CEO’s first four major Starship presentations, it will be broadcast live to the world on the company’s YouTube channel.
Musk first revealed SpaceX’s detailed plans for a massive, fully-reusable Mars rocket in September 2016. At that point, the rocket – known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – was to be 12 meters (39 ft) in diameter, 122 meters (400 ft) tall, and made almost entirely out of carbon-fiber composites. In theory, it would have been able to launch up to 300 tons (660,000 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO) – twice the payload of Saturn V, the next most capable rocket.
In 2017, SpaceX slightly pared back its ambition with a vehicle known as BFR, measuring 9m wide and 106m tall with about a third fewer Raptor engines and estimated performance of ~130 tons (285,000 lb) to LEO. In 2018, on top of announcing Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s circumlunar DearMoon mission and BFR’s first real launch contract, SpaceX updated BFR’s design, stretching the booster 12 meters for a total height of 118m (390 ft) and hedging its performance figures with an estimate of 100 tons to LEO in a fully-reusable configuration.
Around the same time as Musk’s 2018 BFR presentation, though, the SpaceX CEO made the decision to entirely scrap the rocket’s composites-heavy design, renaming the rocket ‘Starship’ and replacing the material with stainless steel – effectively reverting structures development to the drawing board. The principles of the rocket, its general shape and layout, and the Raptor engine powering it remained the same. Thanks to steel’s extreme affordability relative to cutting-edge composites, SpaceX was able to make rapid progress and ultimately flew Starhopper – a steel water-tower-esque rocket powered by Raptor – less than a year later in July and August 2019.
Less than a year after Starhopper’s 150m (~500 ft) hop, SpaceX successfully hopped a far more mature Starship prototype known as SN5, which relied on far thinner steel and effectively amounted to a full prototype of the tank section of an orbital-class ship. Just a month later, in September 2020, SpaceX repeated the feat with an entirely different Starship prototype, demonstrating repeatability both in production and flight. Three months later, Starship SN8 – featuring flaps, a nosecone, header tanks, and two more Raptor engines – nearly aced its launch debut. In May 2021, after three more failed test flights, Starship SN15 stuck the landing and survived a 10 km launch, more or less fully demonstrating the rocket’s exotic skydiver-style descent and last-second flip for a vertical landing.
Visible progress has slowed and flight testing has halted since SpaceX began pushing for the first orbital Starship test flight in mid-2021. The company decided against reusing Starship SN15 and also chose not to attempt to replicate the ship’s successful landing with Starship SN16, which was ready for testing a matter of days after. Instead, SpaceX has focused on constructing the orbital launch site and slowly finished Starship S20 and Super Heavy B4 – a pair once expected to support the first orbital test flight. While slow compared to all previous Starship prototypes, Ship 20 has nonetheless made excellent progress and is effectively fully ready for a serious flight test. Booster 4, on the other hand, has barely completed cryogenic proof testing and has yet to perform even a partial wet dress rehearsal (with live propellant) or attempt a single static fire test in last five months.
In short, the status of Starship development – and, especially, Booster 4, Ship 20, and the first orbital test flight – has gotten quite a bit murkier over the last several months. February 9th and 10th marked a welcome change of pace, with SpaceX sailing through the very first attempt at stacking Starship hardware with Starbase’s ‘orbital integration tower’ (launch tower) and a trio of giant, robotic arms. Just a handful of hours after the first ‘arm lift’ began, Starship S20 was safely stacked atop Super Heavy Booster 4, assembling the largest rocket in the world for the second time this year.
With any luck, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s first presentation in two and a half years – scheduled no earlier than 8pm CST (02:00 UTC) – will shed further light on the company’s progress towards orbital test flights.