On February 10, SpaceX‘s Chief Engineer Elon Musk gave us an update on the company’s Starship launch vehicle. While it was light on brand new details, we still got some news. Below are our key takeaways from the event.
Starship is no longer a development idea but a matured program
If you’ve been following SpaceX’s Mars colonization plan for the last decade or so, you should have noticed a fundamental change in this event versus others. Most importantly, there wasn’t a significant design change. Many people have said they were disappointed with the update because the public has become accustomed to these events changing the way we see Starship. However, this update gave another major change, not in design but in the program’s status.
Personally, I felt a big change in how this update was given. In previous times Elon would get up on stage and show off a new vehicle design and then talk about some insane numbers and launch and landing processes. This time it was different. Elon got on stage in front of a fully stacked rocket he had been dreaming of building for years. Elon discussed Starship as less of an R&D program but rather a more mature program ready to start flight operations.
I don’t know if it was standing in the presence of Starship or the words out of Elon’s mouth, but I left that event feeling more confident that SpaceX can develop this rocket, and now they just have to find a way to sell and launch it.
One million pounds needed for Martian colony
To start, SpaceX is selling Starship as a commercial launcher, but its true mission is to help build a colony on Mars. Elon mentioned during the event that creating a Martian colony isn’t enough, but we need to make the colony self-sufficient. According to him, it would take about one million pounds of cargo sent to the surface of Mars to get the colony there.
This is where we will see these crazy numbers SpaceX is giving us, like ten Starships launching three times a day. There isn’t a market to commercially support this launch schedule, but there is when building a colony on Mars. Between crew and cargo, there will be a lot of launches needed to get that colony started.
Commerical mission to come to Starship in the near future
As of the event, there were three programs lined up to use Starship. First was dearMoon, a mission to send artists around the Moon. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten any real updates about this mission. The mission’s website hasn’t been updated since last September. The site only states that candidates are finishing up medical checkups.
Another mission is NASA’s Human Landing System contract. In part of the Artemis program, NASA is paying SpaceX to develop and fly a lunar lander version of Starship for a human landing in 2025/2026. Finally, SpaceX will launch Starlink payloads on the early flights. These Gen2 Starlink satellites will be crucial to making Starlink commercially viable and support the cost of building a Martian colony.
Elon hinted that future missions were coming to both Dragon and Starship. When he said soon, we didn’t expect it to be the following Monday. Since the update, Jared Issacman, commander of Inspiration4, announced a new program, Polaris.
This program will be for both SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and the first crewed Starship launch. The Polaris Program will push what SpaceX has done so far, flying higher and conducting the first commercial spacewalk. We could see the first Dragon flight this year, but Starship flights will take a little longer before its ready.
SpaceX has options incase of enviromental issues
The second half of 2021 was disappointing if you were a Starship fan. After landing SN15, there wasn’t a lot SpaceX could do with its current launch site. That meant most of the year was spent building out its ground systems and trying to get environmental approval from the FAA.
Whether or not SpaceX gets approval from the FAA with its current assessment is up in the air, and it will be until March 28 when we hear if they do. However, if SpaceX runs into trouble with its review, Elon said they have options.
While Boca Chica is appealing for its relative remoteness from large populations, SpaceX is preparing Starship facilities at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The company has grown its footprint on the NASA site with its Hanger X Falcon 9 refurbishment site and the beginnings of a Starship launch pad at LC-39A.
Elon reconfirmed that Hanger X at Kennedy Space Center would be used for Starship hardware, as it was early in the program, but whether the East Coast facilities will be built out like Boca Chica or SpaceX uses existing facilities, like the Vehicle Assembly Building, remains to be seen.
More than one Starship launch site by the end of the year
Going along with the options SpaceX has in case Starbase runs into trouble, Elon announced it hopes to have more than one launch site for Starship by the end of this year. Currently, SpaceX is working on four other locations to potentially launch Starship from.
First, we have Florida, where two options lie. Work is happening right now at LC-39A, but SpaceX is also exploring building a brand new pad, LC-49. This is still in the early stages of development, with SpaceX and NASA working through the environmental process.
Secondly, we have SpaceX’s pair of sea launching platforms. Last year SpaceX purchased the oil rigs, named Deimos and Phobos, and placed them at ports in Brownsville, Texas and Pascagoula, Mississippi. To date, we’ve only seen updates to Phobos as its deck has been stripped down of most of its oil drilling equipment. However, Elon said that just the other week SpaceX began work on one to include a launch tower and catch arms system like that currently built at Starbase.
We don’t know which rig will get these updates, but it could be either. Phobos has had the most work done on it. However, Deimos is the closest to existing SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica.
Overall, SpaceX’s update on Starship didn’t give us much new information, but it was nice to hear from Elon officially on the current status of his next rocket. So here is to the next few years until we are updated further.