Humans have long looked up at a night sky and yearned to explore it. Today, we are living through a time when the science-fiction dreams of previous generations are coming to reality, and one very large rocket is likely going to lead the way. We're talking about SpaceX's Starship. This massive spaceship may very well be the latest — and most public — of Elon Musk's many entrepreneurial endeavors, but it has the potential to quite literally open up a gateway to the stars — and put humans on Mars.
But what exactly is Starship? And why does it keep exploding? Will it ever reach Mars?
Some of these questions undoubtedly keep Musk awake at night, and perhaps they intrigue you too. Starship is a fascinating project, and learning more about it is an enlightening and invigorating prospect as we sit at the precipice of Starship's first orbital flight.
The Basics of Starship
If you've seen the headlines about Starship, you might be a bit confused about what it is — and how big it will be. "Starship generally refers to the whole system [the "Starship" spacecraft and re-usable "Super Heavy" first stage], although some will refer to just the upper stage as Starship," says Dr. Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Tripathi also previously worked at both SpaceX and NASA's Johnson Space Center.
No matter how you define it, Starship is big. The upper stage spacecraft stands 164 feet (50 meters) tall, and can carry 100 to 150 tons (90 to 136 metric tons) of cargo. It alone can generate 3.2 million pounds of thrust, and that's nothing compared to the first stage booster. Called "Super Heavy," harkening back to the Falcon Heavy, this part of the Starship configuration stands 230 feet (69 meters) tall and can generate 17 million pounds of thrust. It's clear that Starship needs a lot of power if it's going to carry everything we need for the next stage of human space exploration.
The Goals of Starship
Speaking of space exploration, you might wonder why Earth needs a rocket and spaceship combo with that much power. Starship has three goals, according to Tripathi:
- its near-term goal of placing a lot of Starlink satellites cheaply in orbit
- fulfilling its Human Landing System (HLS) contract with NASA to return to the moon
- establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars
These are lofty ambitions for a privately owned company, as even decades of funding for NASA have not brought similar goals to reality.
But according to SpaceX, Starship will be able to:
- deliver both cargo and people to and from the International Space Station
- be used to develop bases to support future space exploration
- transport large amounts of cargo to the moon for research and human spaceflight development
- carry people on long-duration, interplanetary flights to build cities on Mars
But "[t]he ultimate goal of the Starship program is to create a rapidly and fully re-usable heavy-lift class launch vehicle," Tripathi says. "Elon Musk has stated that, in his opinion, this is the key innovation needed for making life multiplanetary. Everything else SpaceX does is a means to this end."
And that word "rapid" is key when talking about the true objectives of the Starship project. "Lots of launches in quick succession are needed," Tripathi explains. "The "rapid" part is important because the launch cadence required to put sufficient tonnage in space to take advantage of every Mars launch window (two years apart) significantly exceeds what current (and most planned) technology can do."
Starship vs. NASA's Space Launch System
For years now, NASA has been simultaneously building its own version of Starship and Super Heavy, called the Space Launch System (SLS). SLS actually predates Starship in development, though it's likely Musk has had an idea like this for quite a while.
"In terms of comparison to NASA, one part of the agency has been directed by Congress to make a large (heavy-lift), extremely expensive and single-use rocket called SLS," Tripathi says. "Other parts of the agency are trying hard to spur innovation through commercial competition, and by helping to bring to market many of the innovations needed for future human exploration."
This divergent set of objectives has created some inefficiency that has left NASA behind in this particular "space race," though some within NASA might say it's for the better that private companies like SpaceX are innovating and developing more quickly. In light of announcements about the future of the International Space Station operating until 2030, it's clear that NASA is looking to the private sector to take over in continuing American excellence in space exploration and SpaceX is well positioned to lead that endeavor.
"From my perspective, SpaceX has a 13-year experience advantage, and that experience builds on itself in a multiplicative way," says Tripathi. "They are trying very hard things after having mastered the easier things that some other companies are just now learning and demonstrating."
Starship Tests to Date
SpaceX may be ahead in the space race, but not all Starship launch tests have gone smoothly. Most prototypes to date have exploded, some before ever getting off the ground. Others have had fiery crash landings, while one had a successful liftoff and landing only to explode minutes after settling on the launch pad.
But finally May 5, 2021, Starship had a successful flight test where a prototype powered through its ascent by the three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence before Starship reached its highest altitude, about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) above Earth. Then Starship reoriented itself for reentry and a controlled descent before it touched down safely.
What Starship hasn't been able to test is its first orbital launch. The plan is to launch Starship into orbit from Starbase in Texas. The booster stage will separate approximately 170 seconds into flight and then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) from shore. Starship will continue flying and achieve orbit, and then perform a targeted landing about 62 miles (100 kilometers) off the Northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
SpaceX is waiting on final environment review from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before the orbital test launch can take place. It was originally scheduled for Feb. 28, 2022, and has been pushed back twice. Now the target date for review is March 28, 2022.
In the long term, Starship is just the next level of rocketry in our species' attempts to explore beyond our home planet. "If SpaceX is able to complete development and certification of Starship, it opens up all new pathways for both uncrewed science and commercial missions, as well as human exploration," Tripathi says.
And this should be exciting for many people on Earth, even if they never reach space. "The mass and volume available is a step above anything else available since Apollo, and for purportedly far cheaper. Scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs would have an entirely new tool at their disposal," Tripathi says.