Elon Musk believes that humans can and should become interplanetary. His new spacecraft, he says, can help achieve that lofty goal. At the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, Musk explained in detail what comes next for the powerful Mars rocket that could one day transport humans to the Red Planet.
"This is the most inspiring thing I've seen," said Musk, standing in front of the Starship Mk1
After going through the history of SpaceX's construction – September 28 has been 11 years since SpaceX first went into orbit – Musk, black, has gone through some of the Starship specs for months.
What's next for Starship?
The mission to Mars has always been at the forefront of SpaceX's endeavors. Three years ago, Musk outlined his ambition to get people on the Red Planet with a brutal two-stage reusable rocket. The interplanetary ship detailed in this initial proposal is already coming to life. This is a real, tangible object that you can see and touch. But the real challenge begins: make him fly.
A prototype vehicle called Starhopper performed two low-altitude or "hops" flights equipped with a single Raptor engine. The next cornerstone is the descent of the three-engine Mk1 prototype from the ground at an altitude of about 12 miles (20 kilometers). The second prototype, the Mk2, is being built at the SpaceX facility in Florida. Musk said the Mk3 prototype would begin construction in Boca Chica in about a month and could be completed in three months.
"That will sound totally brazen, but we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months," he said.
Of course, the deadlines passed before. Musk believes that if the current pace of production continues to run as fast as it has before, the orbital vehicle could be a prototype Mk4 or Mk5.
During an hourlong, windy press conference Saturday night, Musk announced that the next test would be held in "about one to two months" before specifying how Starship would control its landing.
"This is a whole new approach to rocket control," Musk said. "Much closer to a parachute than an airplane."
Musk laughed as he showed the crowd at Boca Chica how the vessel would control the fall, with his hands acting like a ship. Going a bit further into specifics, Musk explained the importance of a steel heat shield that would cost only a fraction of the carbon fiber heat shield. "I'm in love with steel," Musk said.
Super Heavy, the rocket that will increase Starship into orbit, did not receive so much air time. Musk said there would be about twice as much thrust as the most powerful rocket ever produced, Saturn V and NASA (19459071]), to 37 Raptor engines .
Musk also detailed plans for an Starship "orbital charge" that would allow the transfer of fuel between spacecraft into orbit. Musk said the process is easier than connecting to the International Space Station – something SpaceX has turned into pretty good. "This is one of the other critical parts of the puzzle to establish the base of the moon or Mars," said Musk.
Starship's ambitions are not just the moon or Mars. Musk showed off the promotional art of a potential future for Starship, which would direct him further to the solar system. Next destination? Saturn! (Well … maybe not the next next destination.)
Musk ended his press conference with the belief that he was the lead, since those original plans for Starship were detailed three years ago.
"I think we must do everything we can to become a multi-planetary species and we must do it now."
Other space projects
The next generation and mission of Mars to Mars is obviously extremely focused right now, but the company is also working with NASA on a sales team project that aims to shoot astronauts at the International Space Station from U.S. soil. Prior to Saturday's event Saturday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein appeared to be throwing a little shade at SpaceX, noting that the Commercial Crew project was falling behind schedule.
During the post-conference Q&A session, Musk gave a brief answer.
"In terms of SpaceX's resources, our resources are largely Falcon and Dragon," he said. "It really was a very small percentage of SpaceX that made Starship."
Musk did not elaborate on the progress of SpaceX's Commercial Crew project, but noted difficulties in the optimization process. A recent explosion during testing of the Dragon crew capsule further delayed SpaceX's ambitions to bring ISS astronauts before the end of the year. It now looks like the first crew launch will take place in 2020, with NASA indicating that future flight dates are under review.
Originally published September 29.