On Thursday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared photos of Raptor rocket engines that recently left the company’s Hawthorne, California plant to be tested at its facility near McGregor, Texas. “Preparing to Fire the Starship Raptor Engine,” he said through a caption on Twitter.
The photos were interesting, but Musk had additional comments about the engine that revealed a lot about how the company is proceeding with the overall design of the vehicle it will power. SpaceX’s approach appears to be aimed at keeping costs down and moving as quickly as possible towards an early 2020 launch of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket.
For example, musk said:“Initially, one 200-ton thrust engine became common to the whole ship and booster to reach the moon as fast as possible. The next versions will be split into vacuum-optimized (380+ sec Isp) and sea-level thrust (~250 tons) .”
This comment is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First of all, the company seems to have decided to streamline the Raptor engine into a single design that will power both the rocket on takeoff and the spacecraft in the upper atmosphere and space. It will take less time to develop, test and qualify a single engine. It will also cost less money.
In addition, Musk notes that the goal is “to reach the moon as soon as possible”. The company still seems to be focusing on moon flights, such as the #dearMoon project for Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa, as the first missions for Starship.
This approach has an added advantage: Over the next two decades, NASA seems likely to be very interested in developing infrastructure near and on the moon. By flying Starship to the same destination on early test flights, SpaceX has a much higher chance of winning government contracts to deliver cargo, and possibly astronauts, to the moon. So far, neither NASA nor the US military have shown much or no interest in SpaceX’s ambitious rocket and spacecraft.
In his series of tweets Thursday night, Musk shared other details indicating he plans to fly Starship as soon as possible. For example, the first versions of the Super Heavy rocket will probably fly with fewer than 31 engines, and the launch system thrusters shall: a simpler design.
These moves indicate that SpaceX and Musk are responding to external pressures, especially financial ones. Aside from the Japanese investor, it hasn’t revealed any customers for Super Heavy and Starship, so the company is continuing with a build-it-and-y-will-coming approach for users. To achieve this, however, it must cut costs elsewhere, as evidenced by the 10 percent reduction in its workforce in January.
Musk reinforced this during a Jan. 30 phone call to Tesla investors, when asked whether recent layoffs at the automaker and SpaceX indicate a weakening economy. As part of his response, Musk noted that the belt needs to be tightened at SpaceX as it embarks on the expensive development of the Starship and satellite internet Starlink projects.
“We have to be super hard at it,” he said of keeping the number of employees low. “SpaceX has two absolutely insane projects that would normally put a company out of business, Starship and Starlink, and so SpaceX has to be incredibly spartan with spending until these programs come to fruition.”
To minimize the pain, SpaceX will bring those programs to fruition as soon as possible. If that means the company’s “Mars rocket” won’t be quite in its final form, or even go to Mars, travel to the moon could eventually fund missions to the red planet. Idealism is great and all, but engineers work best in the real world.
List image by Elon Musk/Twitter