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Elon Musk provides an update on Starship: “It’s been mindbogglingly difficult”

Photo of SpaceX launch and catch tower.
Enlarge / SpaceX’s stacked Starship vehicle complete with its impressive launch tower.

Trevor Mahlmann

STARBASE, Texas—Shortly after SpaceX founder Elon Musk completed a 75-minute presentation on Starship Thursday evening, I huddled with a few veteran space reporters. What, we discussed, were the headlines from the event? No one was sure, as we agreed that Musk had not really broken any news.

In his speech, Musk repeated themes he has touched on in the past about why SpaceX is building the Starship vehicle to settle Mars and why this is important to humanity. There were two primary reasons, Musk reiterated. First, there is the life insurance rationale. Although the chance of a planet-wide calamity extinguishing our species is low, it is not zero.

For the first time in 4.5 billion years, a creature living on Earth has the ability to do something about this threat by helping humanity to become a spacefaring species. We ought to seize the opportunity, he said. “To be frank, civilization is feeling a little bit fragile right now,” Musk said.

Then there is the inspiration piece. People should have some excitement about the future, and Musk believes that humanity coming together to extend our civilization to a new planet is one such opportunity for inspiration. Such a mission will require diplomacy and radical new technologies. We should be, Musk said, “making science fiction not fiction forever.”

But for those who came to the speech in the hopes of hearing major news or technical details about the Starship program, Musk’s words were a disappointment. In many ways, the themes Musk used Thursday night in South Texas were lifted straight from a speech, titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” that he delivered in 2016 at the International Astronautical Conference. Once again, he went long on vision and aspirations.

However, there was one all-important difference between Musk’s speech this week and the one he delivered more than five years ago. Musk spoke then about hypotheticals. On Thursday night, he took the stage in front of a silvery, fully stacked Starship vehicle standing 120 meters tall. It stood next to an even taller “launch and catch” tower that, if anything, was still more impressive.

Talk is cheap. Hardware is not. Musk’s vision of settling Mars once seemed like pure science fiction. Now, as he said on Thursday, SpaceX is starting to peel away some of the “fiction.”

A few revelations

Musk did sprinkle in a few notable details on Thursday.

As SpaceX charges forward with full and rapid rocket reuse, the company’s stretch goal is to fly each “ship” every six to eight hours. These “ships” are the Starship launch system’s upper stage, which is 50 meters tall and designed to carry payloads into orbit or be refilled there to fly to the Moon or Mars. The first-stage “booster” could fly even more frequently, as much as once an hour, he predicted. The first stage makes a six-minute flight to space and back and is intended to be loaded with propellant on the ground in just 30 minutes.

He also reviewed the massive, aptly named “launch and catch” tower. It is designed to support the fully stacked rocket during fueling and launch operations. Then, minutes after launch, it will catch the first-stage booster with massive “chopsticks” as the booster slows down near the ground.

“This is some really wild stuff,” he said. “It’s hard to believe it’s real, but there it is.”

And there it was—tall, imposing, and seemingly from the pages of a science fiction novel. As an aside, Musk noted that the tower was designed and then constructed in just 13 months after SpaceX engineers decided to use the catching technique on returning boosters to facilitate their reuse more quickly.

Musk also offered some performance specs on the second-generation Raptor engine, Raptor 2. The original Raptor engine produced 185 tons of thrust, but Raptor 2 will have at least 230 tons. It will also cost half as much to build and should be considerably more robust. Some problems remain, however, as the engine chambers have a propensity to melt with the intense output. Still, Musk believes the company is close to solving these issues.

“It’s a spectacular piece of engineering,” Musk said of the Raptor 2 engine. “It’s been mindbogglingly difficult.”

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