Elon Musk lost his claim as having the most powerful space-worthy rocket when NASA blasted its own mega rocket to the moon in November.
But the SpaceX founder could win back the title with his company’s next big project. Starship, SpaceX’s skyscraping rocket and spacecraft, will launch on its first mission soon. During the test flight, the colossal booster will separate about three minutes after liftoff and land in the Gulf of Mexico, according to federal filings. The ship will fly in space around Earth at an altitude of over 150 miles, then splash down off the Hawaiian coast.
This will be a crucial demonstration of hardware NASA is depending on to get humans back on the moon in the next few years. And, if successful, it’ll mean Musk is one small step closer to realizing his personal dream of building a city on Mars.
The billionaire business magnate has oversold timelines in the past, but here’s what we know so far.
What is the SpaceX Starship?
Starship is a super-heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft, built to carry immense cargo and numerous astronauts into deep space.
The 400-foot-tall stainless steel tower looms over NASA’s rocket, the Space Launch System. It would take about five billboards stacked on top of the latter to measure up to Musk’s space vehicle. SpaceX estimates its rocket also has about twice as much thrust.
The rocket is made of stainless steel, a material Musk is particularly fond of due to its relatively low price. Unlike NASA’s mega moon rocket, which flies on super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen, this beast is fueled with 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen. The new fuel can be stored at more manageable temperatures than liquid hydrogen, meaning it doesn’t need as much insulation and is less prone to leaks, a problem that often stymies NASA launches.
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SpaceX’s Starship is made of stainless steel and runs on liquid methane. Credit: SpaceX
Starship is intended to evolve into a fully reusable launch and landing system, designed for trips to the moon, Mars, and other destinations. Its reusability is “the holy grail of space,” Musk said at a company event in South Texas last February, because it will make spaceflight more affordable to the average person.
“It’s a very hard thing to do,” he said. “It’s only barely possible with the physics of Earth.”
Where will Starship launch?
Perhaps surprisingly, Starship won’t lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where most space fans are accustomed to watching historically significant launches.
Instead, it will take off from Boca Chica, Texas, at SpaceX’s own spaceport. Eventually, the company will launch the rocket from a site under construction in the outer perimeter of the famous Florida pad that shot Apollo 11 to the moon.
“Their plan is that they’re going to do a few test flights there,” in South Texas, Nelson said. “Once they have the confidence, they will bring the missions to the Cape.”
How likely is Starship to succeed?
SpaceX has launched partial prototypes of Starship to practice landing, and several exploded or crashed in the process. One succeeded in returning unscathed, however, in May 2021, after flying about six miles up in the sky.
Musk, who doesn’t parse words when it comes to the realities of spaceflight, once said Starship’s test in space wasn’t likely to succeed on the first try.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful,” he said during a video conference with a National Academies panel in 2021. “But I think we will make a lot of progress.”