SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has published the first official renders of the company’s updated stainless steel Starship, offering glimpses of the spacecraft on both the Moon and Mars.
Although the designs of Starship and Super Heavy (formerly BFS and BFR) have shifted significantly over the past three years, the vehicle’s primary destinations have remained stable. Above all else, SpaceX remains focused on designing its next-gen rocket to be the best spacecraft ever built for transporting huge payloads and humans to the Moon, Mars, and ultimately throughout the solar system. The interplanetary future of Starship is currently an unknown quantity but SpaceX is already building the first full-scale orbital prototype and testing multiple finished versions of the Raptor engine that will power it.
As discussed earlier today, SpaceX has already completed a low-fidelity prototype of Starship known as Starhopper, designed to – per its namesake – perform low-altitude, low-velocity hop tests. Powered by Raptor, Starhopper also acts as a mobile test stand for the next-gen rocket engine meant to power both Starship and its Super Heavy booster. SpaceX’s current planning has delayed a vacuum variant of the engine for several years, instead choosing to standardize the same Raptor engine across both stages of BFR. Starship will feature seven Raptor engines producing ~14,000 kN (~3.2M lbf) of thrust, while Super Heavy’s latest iteration would require a 31 Raptors and produce a staggering 62,000 kN/14M lbf of thrust at liftoff.
That performance – theoretically making Starship/Super Heavy almost two times as powerful as Saturn V – is essential to support massive missions to Mars and the Moon while also enabling complete reusability of the rocket. SpaceX rightly judged that rapid, low-effort reusability is the only way to truly revolutionize the cost of access to orbit, at least for the indefinite future. This need itself piggybacks on CEO Elon Musk’s founding motivation: to make humanity a multi-planetary species and protect it against future mass-extinction events.
Musk has long viewed the Moon as a distraction to that goal, offering very little prospect of being more than a detour, but both NASA and the political apparatus currently controlling the US have decided that a rebranded Moon return is desirable. Repeating several nearly identical Moon return proposals from the last few decades, the political powers that be have yet to actually put any money where their mouths are. SpaceX and Musk have nonetheless jumped on the bandwagon, a pragmatic decision to hedge bets in case funding actually appears. Unsurprisingly, SpaceX is interested in any opportunity to acquire federal funding for its expensive Starship/Super Heavy/Raptor development programs.
In September 2018, SpaceX announced plans to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and 8-10 artists of his choice on the first Starship mission around the Moon. According to Musk, that could happen as early as 2023 but will necessarily be preceded by at least one uncrewed demonstration of Starship’s performance in deep space. Given the nominal reusability of Starship, the same spacecraft might perform both missions.
In the meantime, SpaceX is in the process of building the first orbital Starship prototype, although it’s unclear just how advanced the vehicle will be. Depending on how polished and successful SpaceX’s Starship Alpha (for lack of a better term) is, it’s conceivable that the spacecraft could be retrofitted or upgraded for actual demonstration missions to deep space or the Moon. To enable the long-term reusability of Starships, SpaceX will need to rely on in-orbit refueling by way of dedicated tanker launches. However, a lower-fidelity prototype that might otherwise be scrapped could be a prime candidate for a one-way Moon-impact or lunar-landing mission, reducing risk for future crewed or uncrewed Starship missions to the Moon before SpaceX has the facilities and hardware to support simultaneous Starship and tanker launches.
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