Elon Musk’s SpaceX is about to make its boldest leap yet with a round-the-world test flight of its mammoth spaceship.
It is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, with the ambitious goal of carrying people to the moon and Mars.
Jutting nearly 400 feet (120 meters) into the South Texas sky, Starship could lift off as early as Monday, with no one aboard. Musk’s company received the green light from the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday.
It will be the first launch with the two sections of Starship together. Early versions of the sci-fi-looking upper stage rocketed several kilometers into the stratosphere a few years ago, crashing four times before finally landing upright in 2021. The massive first-stage rocket, dubbed Super Heavy, will soar for the first time .
For this demo, SpaceX will not attempt any rocket or spacecraft landings. Everything will fall into the sea.
“I’m not saying it will go into orbit, but I guarantee excitement. It won’t be boring,” Musk promised at a Morgan Stanley conference last month. “I think it has, I don’t know, hopefully about a 50% chance of reaching orbit.”
Here is the rundown on the debut of Starship:
The stainless steel spaceship has 33 main engines and 16.7 million pounds of thrust. All but two of the methane-fueled first-stage engines fired during a launch pad test in January, good enough to reach orbit, Musk noted. Given her muscles, Starship could lift up to 250 tons and accommodate 100 people on a trip to Mars. The six-engine spacecraft accounts for 164 feet (50 meters) of its height. Musk plans to use Starship to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit, including his own Starlinks for Internet service, before tethering anyone. Starship handily eclipses NASA’s lunar rockets: the Apollo-era Saturn V and the Artemis program’s Space Launch System that logged its first lunar voyage late last year. It also bypasses the former Soviet Union’s N1 lunar rocket, which never made it past a minute of flight time, by exploding with no one aboard.
The test flight will last an hour and a half and will fall short of a full orbit of the Earth. If Starship reaches three minutes after launch, the booster will be ordered to separate and drop into the Gulf of Mexico. The spacecraft would continue east, passing over the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans before making landfall near Hawaii. The spaceship is designed to be fully reusable but nothing will be saved from the test flight. Harvard astrophysicist and spacecraft tracker Jonathan McDowell will be more excited each time Starship lands and returns from orbit intact. It will be “a profound development in spaceflight if and when Starship is debugged and operational,” he said.
Starship will take off from a remote site on the southernmost tip of Texas near Boca Chica Beach. It’s just below South Padre Island and about 20 miles from Brownsville. Down the street from the launch pad is the complex where SpaceX has been developing and building prototype spaceships for the past several years. The complex, called Starbase, has more than 1,800 employees, who live in Brownsville or elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley. The Texas launch pad features giant robotic arms, called wands, to eventually grab a returning booster as it lands. SpaceX is redeveloping one of its two Florida launch pads to accommodate spaceships along the way. Florida is where SpaceX’s Falcon rockets take off with crew, space station cargo, and satellites for NASA and other customers.
As usual, Musk is remarkably blunt about its chances, even giving odds, at best, of the spacecraft reaching orbit on its maiden flight. But with a fleet of starships under construction at the starbase, he estimates an 80 percent chance that one of them will reach orbit by the end of the year. He expects it will take a couple of years to reach full and rapid reusability.
With Starship, California-based SpaceX is focusing on the moon for now, with a $3 billion NASA contract to land astronauts on the lunar surface as early as 2025, using the superior spacecraft. It will be the first moon landing by astronauts in more than 50 years. The moonwalkers will leave Earth via NASA’s Orion capsule and Space Launch System rocket, then transfer to Starship in lunar orbit for descent to the surface, and then back to Orion. To reach the moon and beyond, Starship will first need to refuel in low Earth orbit. SpaceX imagines an orbiting depot with windowless spaceships as tankers. But Starship isn’t just for NASA. A private crew will be the first to pilot Starship, in orbit around the Earth. Two private flights to the moon will follow – no landings, just flights around.
There are more new rockets on the horizon. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is preparing the New Glenn rocket for its orbital debut from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the next year or so. Named after the first American to orbit the world, John Glenn, the rocket towers over the company’s current New Shepard rocket, named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital jump. NASA will use New Glenn to send a pair of spacecraft to Mars in 2024. The United Launch Alliance expects its new Vulcan rocket to make its maiden launch later this year, hoisting a private lunar lander to the moon at the behest of the NASA. Europe’s Arianespace is close to launching its new boosted Ariane 6 rocket from French Guiana in South America. And NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket that will carry astronauts will grow into ever-larger versions. ___
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