Boca Chica Plush, Texas – Ilon Musk talks about his vision for a brighter future for humanity Saturday night in South Texas.
Musk acknowledged that there are many Earth problems here, and it is important that these be addressed. But it is also important to give people hope for the future and a sense of optimism. He believes that exploration of space and human expansion in the solar system provides this kind of hopeful vision.
And so, in the great Texas sky full of stars, he offers hope in the form of a large spaceship. Just hours after a team of SpaceX engineers, technicians and contractors completed the assembly of a Starship prototype, Musk revealed it to the world. He did so in an open-air shipyard, hard on the Rio Grande River, where he intended to build dozens, if not hundreds, of Starship spacecraft.
The prototype rises behind Musk as it addresses a crowd of several hundred people, including employees, Brownsville locals and surrounding towns, as well as media members. Earlier, as the sun sank below the horizon, reddish shades flashed from the surface of the Star Ship. When night fell and Musk climbed a small daisy, she rose tall, dark and imposing.
"This is the most inspiring thing I've seen," said Musk, wearing a black blazer, T-shirt and jeans, on a towering spacecraft. The crowd cheered. Currently, Mars seems a little closer than before.
Three years ago, Ilon Musk took the stage in Guadalajara, Mexico, to share for the first time the full scope of his Mars ambitions. He was talking about building a large interplanetary spacecraft – not yet called Starship – and a large rocket booster with dozens of engines to carry 100 people to Mars at one go.
At that time he looked bold, crazy, and brilliant at the same time. But most of all, the vision looked like science fiction. Standing in a field in South Texas on a Saturday night, it felt a little more like science and a little less like fiction.
Three years ago the idea of flying 37 engines on one rocket seemed fantastic. And then, in early 2018, the company launched with a Falcon Heavy with 27 engines. Three years ago, the idea of landing and re-flying a large rocket several times seemed remote. But now SpaceX has done this dozens of times.
But the most futuristic of all seemed to be the idea of a 50-meter-tall spacecraft that could fly into space, fly to the moon or Mars and return to Earth. Nevertheless, Musk exhibited with the Starship Mk 1 vehicle. Soon, perhaps within one or two months, it will take off at an altitude of 20 km. At the same time, the company is building a second prototype, the Mk 2, in Cocoa, Florida. He will begin work on a third version in Texas later this fall, etc. N.
Each design will replicate the latter. Engineers will look for ways to shave the mass – the Mk 1 prototype weighs 200 tonnes, and SpaceX would ultimately like to reduce the total mass to 110 tonnes to maximize Starship's lift capacity. Ultimately, a reduced star ship should be able to lift 150 tonnes of payload into low-Earth orbit, Musk said. His first orbital flight, launched by a large booster named Super Heavy, may come next year.
This payload capacity is more than any other launch system built before, and would be particularly remarkable given that SpaceX has designed both a booster and Starship to be fully usable. "A multiple-use orbital rocket is hardly possible given the physics of the Earth," Musk said.
A Man of Steel
During the presentation, Musk offered several updates on changes to the design of Starship. However, he spends most of his time discussing the use of stainless steel as a vehicle skin. "Stainless steel is the best design decision we've made."
Yes, Musk said, steel is heavier than carbon composite or aluminum materials used in most spacecraft, but it has exceptional thermal properties. At extremely cold temperatures, stainless steel 301 does not become brittle; and at very high atmospheric inlet temperatures it does not melt until it reaches 1500 degrees Celsius. Therefore, Starship requires only a modest thermal shield of glass thermal tiles.
Another advantage is the price, which is important for a company building Starships on its own penny, with the intention of building many of them. The carbon fiber material costs about $ 130,000 per tonne, he said. Stainless steel sells for $ 2500 a ton.
"Steel is easy to weld and weatherproof," Musk added. "The proof is that we welded this outdoors without a factory. To be honest, I'm in love with steel."
Leaf image by Trevor Malman for Ars