SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Thursday the company is “driving hard” towards an orbital flight of the company’s Starship vehicle this year.
It’s not yet decided whether this orbital launch will take place from the company’s new facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, a location on Florida’s Cape Canaveral, or perhaps even an ocean-based launch pad. The company is going ahead with all three options at once. The orbital mission would include a future iteration of Starship with six Raptor engines, Musk said.
Since late November, when the very first prototype of a Starship vehicle was damaged in a pressure test, SpaceX employees have been working on a new version of the vehicle called SN1, for serial number 1. The company has gone with this nomenclature because Musk envisions build the big spaceships quickly, with each new iteration improving on the last – be it smoother manufacturing processes, shedding unnecessary mass, improving performance, or more.
“Building many rockets allows for sequential approaches,” Musk said on Twitterby applying a simple equation to the process: progress in a given technology is the number of iterations multiplied by the progress between iterations.
Videos recently taken from public roads via the Boca Chica site show that the company has made demonstrable progress with its SN1 vehicle, having started stacking the various components. This missile could be rolled to the launch site later this month, about a mile away from the factory, with fuel testing possibly beginning in early March, followed by a static fire test. If all goes well, SN1 could attempt a test flight up to 20km later this spring, although SpaceX has not yet received a launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration.
However, the SN1 vehicle will not attempt orbital flight, as that will come from future iterations. Musk said his best bet for the orbital test vehicle will be SN3, SN4 or even SN5. “This is a very fast iteration,” he said.
Can’t go fast
With this approach to aerospace hardware design, there will no doubt be more setbacks, such as the November accident. But SpaceX is willing to tolerate not going fast. With “iterative design”, the company builds vehicles, tests them and flies them as fast as possible. This approach is in stark contrast to more traditional aerospace, in which years are spent refining a vehicle’s design before a vehicle is built. This usually results in fewer explosions, but requires a lot more time and money.
Musk explained that the iteration in the Falcon 9 rocket program slowed down between 2010 and 2018 as payloads became “too important” for NASA and commercial customers to risk. However, during the early phase of the Starship program, SpaceX is trying to build vehicles for as little as $5 million each using mostly stainless steel materials. It puts no payload on these first flights. “The production of spaceships, and thus the iterative improvement, will be much faster than that of Falcon,” he said†
An orbital launch of the Starship this year may be an ambitious goal for SpaceX, but there’s little doubt that it will eventually come. This frenetic activity is happening as NASA will soon be awarding contracts for its Artemis Program launch vehicles and lunar landers. Instead of showing NASA blueprints, SpaceX will try to show them actual flights — and the images of a large spaceship taking off from Earth and then landing near the launch site would be powerful indeed.
SpaceX will also eventually need to develop its “Super Heavy” booster, because launching humans or a large amount of cargo to the moon requires a large first stage to launch a fully loaded spaceship into low Earth orbit. This would allow Starship to use its propellant to inject itself into moon orbit and then land on the moon’s surface.
List image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars