The holidays might be a time of slowed activity for most companies in the tech sector, but for SpaceX, it was a time to ramp production efforts on the latest Starship prototype – “Starship SN1” as it’s called, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. This flight design prototype of Starship is under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas development facility, and Musk was in attendance over the weekend overseeing its build and assembly.
Musk shared video of the SpaceX team working on producing the curved dome that will sit atop the completed Starship SN1 (likely stands for ‘serial number 1,’ a move to a more iterative naming system and away from the “Mark” nomenclature used for the original prototype), a part he called “the most difficult” in terms of the main components of the new spacecraft. He added that each new SN version of the rocket SpaceX builds will have minor improvements “at least” through the first twenty or so versions, so it’s clear they expect to iterate and test these quickly.
As for when it might actually fly, Musk said that he hopes this Starship will take off sometime around “2 to 3 months” from now, which is still within range of the projections for a first Starship high-altitude test flight given by the CEO earlier this year at the unveiling of the Starship Mk1 prototype. That prototype was originally positioned as the one that would fly for the high-altitude test, but it blew its top during testing in November and Musk said they’d be moving on to a new design rather than try to repair or rebuild the Mk1.
Musk also shared new details about the construction process for Starship, including that SpaceX will move its build process for future spacecraft to an enclosed building starting with Starship “SN2” in January – though mostly to block out the winds experienced in Boca Chica, since Musk says that welding for stainless steel (the primary material for the Starship fuselage) is much less sensitive to dust and debris than aluminum.
In another tweet, Musk detailed another change from SpaceX’s previous operating model in developing Starship: The future spacecraft’s development is being focused at Boca Chica currently, he said, while SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral teams are “focused on Falcon/Dragon.” Up until now, SpaceX has been operating two separate teams working in parallel on Starship prototypes at both sites. Musk didn’t detail what will become of Starship Mk2, the other earlier prototype that was currently in development at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Musk also shared updates about his tunneling company The Boring Co. (they hope to open their Vegas tunnel to drivers in 2020), Starlink (could be available to customers in the Caribbean either in 2020 or 2021) and chocolate chip muffins.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the much-anticipated Cybertruck electric pickup in LA on Thursday, and the vehicle is obviously getting a lot of attention for its eye-catching and unique design. It looks more like a rover designed for space exploration than a truck — and the analogy in this case is particularly fitting, because the Cybertruck is clad in the same stainless steel alloy that Musk’s other company SpaceX will use as the skin of its forthcoming Starship spaceship.
“It is, it is literally bulletproof to a nine millimeter handgun,” Musk said onstage during the unveiling. “That’s how strong the skin is — it’s ultra-hard, cold-rolled stainless steel alloy that we’ve developed. We’re going to be using the same alloy in the Starship rocket, and in the Cybertruck.”
Musk had previously revealed at an event unveiling the full-height Starship Mk1 prototype that it would go with stainless steel for the outer shell, with an additional glass tile covering layer for the half of the space craft that will endure the highest heat from re-entry (the ship is designed to essentially belly-flop down through Earth’s atmosphere prior to landing). The Super Heavy booster that the Starship will ride atop during its exit will be clad entirely in stainless steel. The reasoning for going with that material was a combination of cost and effectiveness, as it’s actually remarkably good at withstanding and shedding high heat.
Using the same stainless steel alloy across both Tesla and SpaceX will obviously provide some cost efficiencies — especially if the Cybertruck manages to become a high-volume production vehicle (unlikely because of its controversial design, but perhaps possible based on the economics if Tesla can stick to the price points it revealed onstage). There’s another way that the Cybertruck could benefit SpaceX’s work, and Elon alluded to it on Twitter ahead of the event — Mars will need ground transportation, too.
Yes, Musk said in a tweet that the “pressurized edition” of the Cybertruck will be the “official truck of Mars.” As always with Elon, sometimes it’s difficult to suss out exactly where the line is between jokes and actual plans with what he tweets, but I think in this instance he actually means this literally, at least at this stage in the game.
A Cybertruck rover for astronaut use on Mars could theoretically benefit both Tesla and SpaceX because of efficiencies in cross-production and engineering, and as the stainless steel alloy case illustrates, one of the big benefits of designing things for space has always been that the resulting technology often turns out to have really beneficial applications on Earth, too.
SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype encountered an explosive failure during early testing in Texas on Wednesday – you can see exactly what happened in the video below, but basically it blew its lid during cryogenic testing – a standard test that you use to see if the vehicle can hold up to extreme cold temperatures, like those it would encounter in actual use. The good news is that this is exactly why SpaceX (and anyone building rockets) does this kind of early-stage testing on the ground, in controlled, relatively safe conditions. The bad news is that this might delay the company’s optimistic timelines.
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) November 20, 2019
As for next steps, the plan appears to be to take what Starship Mk1 has taught SpaceX so far and proceed with the next iteration of the prototype spacecraft – Starship Mk3. ‘Wait, didn’t we skip a Mk?’ you might ask – no, because SpaceX is already building Mk2 in parallel with this now-destroyed Mk1 at its other facility in Florida.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was quick to answer a question on Twitter from YouTuber Everyday Astronaut regarding the next steps for Starship testing, saying it’ll move on to Mk3 design, and that Mk1’s value was primarily “as a manufacturing pathfinder,” noting that “flight design is quite different.”
This is still a different version of events and Starship development from what’s been discussed previously: Starship Mk1 and Mk2 were originally characterized as high-altitude test flight vehicles, to follow the success of the ‘Starhopper’ snub-nosed subscale demonstrator, which was used to test a single Raptor engine for a couple of low-altitude hops at SpaceX’s Texas site.
Timelines are always fluid in the space business, however, and in particular in the launch industry. SpaceX also sets incredibly optimistic timelines for most of its ambitious goals, by the open admission of both Musk and SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Still, the company has said it’ll look to achieve orbital flight with a Starship prototype vehicle as early as next year, so we’ll have to wait and see whether this inopportune test result affects that schedule.
SpaceX provided the following statement regarding today’s test:
The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected. There were no injuries, nor is this a serious setback.
As Elon tweeted, Mk1 served as a valuable manufacturing pathfinder but flight design is quite different. The decision had already been made to not fly this test article and the team is focused on the Mk3 builds, which are designed for orbit.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk went into a bit more detail about the timelines and vehicle requirements to not only reach Mars, but to set up a sustainable base on the Red Planet that can serve as an actual city, supporting a local population. That’s the long-term vision for Musk and his space technology company, after all — making humans an interplanetary species. The timeline that Musk discussed today, replying to fans on Twitter, might be incredibly impressive or incredibly ambitious, depending on your perspective.
Addressing a question about comments he made earlier this week at the U.S. Air Force startup pitch day event in California, Musk said that his stated launch cost of only around $2 million per Starship flight are essentially required, should the final goal be to set up a “self-sustaining city on Mars.” In order to make that city a reality, he added, SpaceX will need to build and fly around 1,000 Starships according to his estimates, which will need to transport cargo, infrastructure and crew to Mars over the course of around 20 years, since planetary alignment only really allows for a realistically achievable Mars flight once every two years.
Musk addressed more near-term potential for Starship as well, including how much payload capacity Starship will provide for Earth orbital transportation. Starship’s design is intended to maximize re-use, and in fact Musk noted that ideally it can fly up to three times per day. That amounts to more than 1,000 flights per year per Starship, which means that if they end up with as many Starships as they currently have built Falcon rockets (around 100) and those can each transport as much as 100 tons to orbit, then on an annual basis, SpaceX will be able to launch upwards of 10 million tons to orbit per year.
To put that in perspective, Musk points out that if you take all cargo-bearing spacecraft currently in operation into account, the total payload capacity is just 500 tons per year — with Falcon series rockets from SpaceX itself making up around half of that.
That’s a lot of payload; in fact, it’s probably more than there will be demand for in any near-term time scale. But it’s also true that Musk envisions a future where orbital space is a much busier place, and a staging ground for orbital cargo transfer and refueling as Moon and Mars-bound spacecraft ready themselves for the outward journey.
Of course, to set up a permanent, sustainable city on Mars, we first have to get there with a crewed flight. There’s another step between now and then, which is landing astronauts back on the Moon. NASA has set 2024 as its goal for that milestone, and SpaceX has said it hopes to land Starship there by as early as 2022 to help with staging in preparation for that landing. In the past, Musk has discussed crewed Mars mission also taking place as early as 2024, but that goal seems mighty aspirational (as do most of his timelines) from where we sit today.