By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is expected on Thursday to give the most thorough update in two years about SpaceX’s plans for Starship, the gargantuan rocket at the heart of Musk’s interplanetary travel ambitions.
Starship is a 400-foot tall, steel rocket and spacecraft combo that looks like a massive, elongated silver bullet. So far, the public has seen quite a bit of the upper portion of the vehicle as early prototypes have conducted a few so-called “hop tests,” and SpaceX now appears ready to test the whole thing. It’s all part of the early steps the company is taking to develop a spacecraft capable of taking humans to the Moon and — eventually — Mars.
SpaceX has achieved regular crewed flights to the ISS, sent the first all-tourist crew to orbit, and made its mark as the exciting-newcomer-turned-reliable-mainstay of the US aerospace industry.
But as NASA demonstrated in the mid-20th century, going from brief jaunts to space to getting a spacecraft all the way to the Moon isn’t easy. And to this day, no human has ever traveled as far as Mars. For all of Musk and SpaceX’s achievements, there is still a long way to go. And for all that Musk has achieved, he has also accrued a reputation for missed deadlines on ambitious projects.
We don’t know exactly what he plans to reveal, but following the blueprint he’s laid out in four previous talks on this topic, we can expect updates on Starship’s design, as SpaceX is known to tweak and fiddle as its vehicles move through the development process. And, in typical Musk fashion, we can expect a few surprises.
In previous years, Musk has made surprise announcements such as unveiling plans to use his rocket to shuttle people between Earthly cities at breakneck speeds, as he did in 2017. In 2018, he dropped the stunning news that a wealthy Japanese businessman had purchased a ride aboard the as-yet-still-undeveloped rocket to take a joy ride around the moon. And in 2019, he unveiled a strange bellyflop maneuver that the upper spacecraft portion of Starship would undertake in order to make gentle upright landings after flight.
Since 2019, however, SpaceX has mostly been in show-don’t-tell mode, executing about a dozen test flights of various early prototypes that went from hopping a few feet off the ground to soaring more than 30,000 feet. A few high-altitude tests ended in explosions as the test rockets smashed back into the ground. But its latest test launch, in May 2021, managed to land upright without bursting into flames.
Lately, SpaceX has largely been waiting for federal regulators to clear the full-scale Starship for the first orbital launch attempt. It’ll be no small feat — getting to orbit requires speeds that exceed 22 times the speed of sound, and to get the Starship spacecraft moving that fast, it’ll ride atop a towering rocket booster, called Super Heavy, affixed with roughly 30 high-powered engines.
If successful, Starship will become the most powerful rocket humanity has ever launched, boasting up to twice the power of the Saturn V rocket NASA used to take astronauts to the moon in the 1960s, though both vehicles would stand at similar heights.
With that milestone on the horizon, Musk may opt to address more about Starship’s long-term future. Here’s what we know and what to expect.
NASA’s moon landing
Last year, NASA made the surprise decision to put SpaceX’s Starship front and center for its moon landing program, called Artemis. SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to adapt its Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander that will get astronauts to the moon’s surface for the first time in half a century.
NASA, Boeing and Lockheed were already working on the rocket and spacecraft that will launch NASA’s astronauts off Earth and make the trek to lunar orbit, but once there, the astronauts will transfer to Starship, which will have launched separately atop its Super Heavy booster. Starship will then carry the astronauts to a gentle landing on the lunar surface.
It’s a wild plan. And Musk could give some insight into what testing SpaceX will do for the mission, how the logistics will play out, and how much of SpaceX’s own money the company might invest in the project.
Future Starship customers
Japanese fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa gave SpaceX an undisclosed amount of money to secure a seat for himself and a group of artists on a Starship trip around the moon, hoping it could take off as soon as 2023. We still don’t know who he plans to take with him, and it’s possible some updates are imminent.
But Maezawa’s purchase raises the question of whether SpaceX has been planning other tourism flights for Starship.
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire payments platform founder who chartered SpaceX’s first-ever space tourism in September could be a candidate.
While he has not commented on a future Starship voyage, he expressed a desire to return to space.
“I would love to go back,” Isaacman told CNN Business after that mission, called Inspiration 4, which made use of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule that’s typically used for ferrying professional astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
“The bar was set very high with Inspiration 4,” he added, but “if something like that were to come along, then sure.”
Before Starship can even get to space, however, SpaceX needs to get a thumbs up from the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial space launches in the United States.
Musk had indicated the company was prepared to launch Starship’s orbital test flight as soon as July of last year.
But the back half of 2021 was full of hangups. The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, was carrying out an environmental assessment to review what the impact would be of launching such a massive rocket from a stretch of rural Texas coastline. A public comment period in October aired the voices of many local residents strongly opposed to the idea, as well as some fervent supporters who weren’t necessarily from the area.
Though SpaceX initially expected to get the all-clear by the end of 2021, according to the FAA, the environmental assessment will continue until at least February 28, 2022.
The agency cited “the high volume of comments submitted” and “discussions and consultation efforts with consulting parties” as reasons for the delay.
It’s no small matter. SpaceX is proposing dozens of launches from the area each year, and the sheer size of the rocket and the scope of its planned facilities will permanently alter the barren stretch of coastline where it currently sits. It’s not clear exactly what the environmental impact will be. And many locals fear losing access to the nearby public beach forever.
At the last Starship update in South Texas in 2019, Musk invited locals out to the event in an attempt to sell them on his plans. Not many people still live in the strip of residential homes right next to SpaceX’s facilities, but Musk may need the support of the broader Brownsville-Boca Chica beach area.
Other Starship details
There are a quite a few other specifics we’ll be looking for from Musk. He hasn’t talked about the proposed plans to use Starship for point-to-point travel on Earth in quite a while. He’s floated the idea of also launching Starship from Florida, where SpaceX already launches its smaller Falcon 9 rockets. And considering he plans to use Starship to launch massive batches of Starlink satellites — part of the company’s burgeoning space-based internet business — he might address how those plans might have evolved.
From a design standpoint, Musk has also touted on Twitter that, when Starship comes back for a landing, it’ll be caught mid-air by a large pair of robotic arms, functioning like chopsticks. That’s different than how SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 boosters, which deploy landing legs to cushion its landing directly back on a landing pad or seafaring platform.
Whatever other surprises Musk might have in store is anyone’s guess.
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CNN’s Rachel Crane contributed