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Elon Musk debuts SpaceX's first Starship, aims for orbit in six months

September 29, 2019

— Eleven years to the day after SpaceX's first successful rocket launch, founder and CEO Elon Musk debuted the company's first Starship, a colossal, steel-constructed spacecraft designed to fly crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and "anywhere else" in the solar system.

Speaking to an audience gathered at SpaceX's Boca Chica launch site, located just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, Musk stood before the towering Starship and an example of his much more diminutive first rocket to reach orbit, the Falcon 1.

"This is, I think, the most inspiring thing I have ever seen," said Musk on Saturday (Sept. 28), admiring the 165-foot-tall (80-meter) Starship as it was lit by spotlights.

Ever since he revealed his intentions to build a "rapidly reusable transportation system" at an international conference in 2016, Musk and his team at SpaceX have been working to develop what is now known as Starship and its even larger booster, the Super Heavy (previous names for the vehicles included the Mars Colonial Transporter, Interplanetary Transport System and BFR, the latter for Big Falcon Rocket). It was not until five months ago, though, that construction of the first Starship began — outdoors.

"The reason [the Boca Chica site] is not fancier, is just because it would have taken too long to build the buildings," said Musk. "So since it was going to take so long to build the buildings, we just built it outside."

Scaled down in size from earlier concepts (though still expected to be nearly 400 feet tall, or 118 meters, when stacked), Starship and Super Heavy also took on a distinctive new look with a change in construction materials.

"Steel was the best design decision on this whole thing," said Musk, citing the metal alloy's strength and cost savings over his previous choice, advanced composites. "And it is very easy to weld stainless steel. The evidence being is that we welded it outdoors, without a factory."

The choice of steel and its high melting point also gave SpaceX flexibility in its choice of heat shields. Starship will use what are essentially glass (ceramic) tiles to protect its windward side as it enters Earth's (or Mars') atmosphere.

Designed to be fully reusable, both Starship and Super Heavy will land vertically, much like SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket's first stage does today. But unlike the Falcon, which performs a propulsive re-entry, Starship will fall back to Earth, "much more akin to a skydiver than a plane," described Musk.

After entering the atmosphere at a 60-degree angle, the spacecraft will descend in the horizontal, controlling its orientation using steerable fins. When it nears the ground, it will fire thrusters and engines to quickly turn upright and land on its tail-mounted legs.

"This is a quite new approach to controlling a rocket," Musk said. "It will look totally nuts to see this thing land."

And that sight could come soon.

Starship update. Click to view and enlarge in pop-up window. (SpaceX)

SpaceX is planning to launch its first Starship on an atmospheric test flight in the next month or two. The vehicle has already been outfitted with three of SpaceX's new Raptor rocket engines optimized for sea level use (later, orbit-bound Starships will be equipped with three additional Raptor engines intended for the vacuum of space).

"This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet, about 20 kilometers, and come back and land," said Musk. "It is really going to be epic to see that thing take off and come back."

Musk's plans for Starship (and Super Heavy) beyond that first flight are equally, if not more so ambitious. Construction of a second, more advanced Starship is already underway at SpaceX's Cocoa, Florida assembly site. Meanwhile, the team at Boca Chica will begin construction of a third craft in October.

Construction of Super Heavy rockets, which will be powered by up to 37 Raptor engines, will follow once each site has built two Starships each.

"We are going to be building both ships and boosters at both Boca and the Cape as fast as we can," said Musk. "This is going to sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months. Provided that the rate of design improvements and manufacturing improvements continue to be exponential, that is accurate to within a few months."

Further, he said, the first crewed flight into Earth orbit could come by next year, paving the way for sending humans out into the solar system.

In September 2018, Musk announced SpaceX's first customer for Starship, a now-43 year old Japanese businessman who paid an undisclosed but substantial amount of money for SpaceX to fly him and six to eight artists of his choosing on a trip around the moon and back.

"I did want to make sure to thank Yusaku Maezawa for his great support. He is putting a lot of serious resources toward helping out Starship," said Musk on Saturday.

Starship and Super Heavy are needed, said Musk, because "we need things that make us excited to be alive, that make us glad to wake up in the morning and be fired up about the future."

"We think it would be really exciting to have a base on the moon," said Musk. "And then, of course, we can go to other places in our solar system, like Saturn. But the critical thing I think we need to think about is the fastest path to a self-sustaining city on Mars. This is the fundamental thing."

"I think we should do our best to become a multi-planet species and to extend our consciousness beyond Earth, and we should do it now," he said.


SpaceX's first Starship spacecraft stands at the company's Boca Chica, Texas launch site, where the steel-constructed vehicle was assembled, as seen on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (collectSPACE)

Bathed in spotlights, SpaceX's first Starship stands beside a Falcon 1 rocket as Elon Musk delivers an update on his company's efforts to build a rapid reusable transportation system that can fly humanity to the moon, Mars and out into the solar system. (collectSPACE)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk addresses employees, invited guests and members of the media while standing before the company's first Starship in Boca Chica, Texas on Sept. 28, 2019. (collectSPACE)

Light from the setting sun glints off the steel sides of SpaceX's first Starship in Boca Chica, Texas on Sept. 28, 2019. (collectSPACE)

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