What Is Starship? SpaceX Builds Its Next-Generation Rocket

NASA wants to use it to land American astronauts on the moon. The Pentagon wants to use it to whisk military cargo around the world in minutes. Astronomers, satellite companies and aspiring space tourists are eyeing its potential to drastically slash the cost of getting to space. Elon Musk says it is “the holy grail of space technology” and sees it as crucial to his ultimate goal of colonizing Mars.

It is called Starship, and for SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s private space company, it is the future. Its success or failure may determine whether the company achieves his dreams.

Since 2010, SpaceX has been flying Falcon 9, a rocket with a reusable booster that has become one of the most dominant launch vehicles in global spaceflight. Starship is the next generation, designed as a gigantic and fully reusable rocket system that could cost less and fly more often. Since 2019, the rocket has been steadily emerging as a silvery sentinel in stainless steel reflecting the sunlight of a South Texas launch site along the Gulf of Mexico. Testing of Starship prototypes has resulted in fiery failures leading up to a successful flight and landing in May 2021. After a series of premature announcements followed by delays, Mr. Musk says 2022 is the year Starship will get to orbit for the first time.

But many obstacles remain to be overcome. Here are answers to common questions about Starship and what must occur before it gets to space, let alone the moon.

When fully stacked together, Starship stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, at nearly 400 feet. It is also taller than Saturn 5, the rocket that sent American astronauts to the moon during NASA’s Apollo program. Mr. Musk has said Starship is designed to be roughly twice as powerful as the Saturn 5. Starship has a wider diameter than other orbital spacecraft — 30 feet — which is meant to make it possible to transport large amounts of cargo or perhaps many people.

To get to orbit, Starship sits atop a towering rocket booster called Super Heavy. Once the two pieces of the spacecraft plow through the stresses of Earth’s atmosphere, the two parts separate near the edge of space. As Starship continues farther toward orbit, the Super Heavy booster that helped it off the ground returns for a landing near its launchpad. A massive tower equipped with mechanical arms, which Mr. Musk calls chopsticks, will attempt to grab the descending rocket to softly land it.

Starship plunges back through Earth’s atmosphere on its side, which is designed to endure the wicked heat of re-entry just as the space shuttle’s underside once did. Shortly before landing, Starship reignites its engines to flip itself vertically for a soft landing.

SpaceX has test-launched five prototypes of Starship’s upper section to an altitude of roughly six miles. Only the final prototype successfully stuck a landing; its predecessors exploded either on the ground or in flight.

But the next chapter in Starship’s timeline, reaching orbit, has been slower to start. To get to space, SpaceX needs to debut its Super Heavy booster. It is to be powered by dozens of Raptor rocket engines — far more than the three engines previously flown on past Starship prototypes.

The date for Starship’s first orbital test flight has been pushed back several times, but Mr. Musk’s latest projection was some time after February. SpaceX had previously aimed to carry out the test last summer, in 2021, then gradually scooted the date back as challenges with Super Heavy’s design and lengthy reviews by regulators hampered the company’s drive to move fast.

Development and construction of the rocket system has been highly visible at SpaceX’s open-air facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, mere miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The company calls the area Starbase. Space enthusiast media companies have placed remote cameras nearby, making it one of the most closely watched engineering spectacles of a company owned by Mr. Musk, who as chief executive of both SpaceX and Tesla, the electric carmaker, is known for moving fast and pushing breakneck development timelines. Dramatic explosions, skirmishes with federal regulators and some key successes have put the company’s rocket development ethos on full display: fly, crash, learn, repeat.

Before SpaceX can launch Starship to space, the company needs to pass a protracted government review of the environmental impact on the area around the launch site, which is surrounding nature preserves home to endangered species. SpaceX cleared an environmental review in 2014 when it intended to use the site for testing and launching its Falcon 9 rocket.

But those plans have changed and expanded drastically over the years with the advent of Starship, prompting a new environmental review. Among SpaceX’s new plans for the area: starting a natural gas plant to source fuel for Starship, installing a solar farm, building parking lots, constructing payload processing facilities and conducting more test flights, which raise the likelihood of testing explosions that can send debris and forceful shock waves for miles.

When the Federal Aviation Administration allowed the public to comment on a draft of its assessment in 2021, some 18,000 comments swarmed in, many from outside the region. That delayed the review’s completion, which is expected on Feb. 28.

In the Brownsville region, SpaceX has faced a mix of enthusiastic support and daunting criticism. Some civic leaders welcome the job opportunities the launch site could bring to the area. But many members of the community also worry about the environmental and economic toll of such a major operation moving into their area.

Once the review process is complete and the public comments are considered, the F.A.A. and other agencies will determine whether SpaceX’s Starship site needs a more thorough environmental review. If it does, that could delay the company’s progress by months or years.

Daunting challenges beget any rocket development program — it’s the nature of rocket science.

SpaceX has faced problems with the production of Raptor, its new rocket engine that will power Starship. Mr. Musk described the situation as a “Raptor production crisis” in an email to employees in late 2021, according to CNBC. The next-generation engine is the company’s first new rocket booster engine since Merlin, which has powered Falcon 9 for more than a decade.

NASA, which aims to use a version of Starship for its first crewed flight to the moon, is following SpaceX’s Raptor development, but the agency recently indicated “significant progress in the overall production of the Starship,” George Nield, an aerospace expert on NASA’s safety advisory panel, said during a recent panel meeting.

According to plans SpaceX filed with regulators last May, Starship’s debut trip to orbit could involve a 90-minute journey to the coast of Hawaii.

The fully stacked rocket system would launch from Texas, with the Super Heavy booster splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico after delivering Starship to orbit — “a partial return” demonstration some 20 miles from the Texas shore. After reaching orbit, Starship will attempt to make a nearly full trip around the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere for a splashdown roughly 60 miles off the coast of Kauai, one of Hawaii’s northernmost islands.

NASA in 2021 gave SpaceX $2.9 billion to develop a version of Starship for the agency’s first two flights to the moon under Artemis, a multibillion-dollar human program to return astronauts to the lunar surface. The goal is to make the moon a proving ground for future missions to Mars.

The first Starship moonshot will be a test, making the journey without humans to demonstrate its ability to land on and return from the moon. The next mission, ambitiously planned for 2025, will carry NASA astronauts.

But this mission will face many technical hurdles of its own. To get humans to the moon, NASA first needs to successfully demonstrate another giant rocket, the long-delayed Space Launch System. That massive rocket system will fly a crew capsule called Orion to lunar orbit, which will dock with Starship and transfer the astronauts aboard before they head to the lunar surface.

SpaceX has successfully flown people to low-Earth orbit and docked with the International Space Station with its Crew Dragon capsules. But the company has so far revealed little about the systems it is developing to keep astronauts safe during a lunar journey.

And even before Starship gets to the moon, it will face unique complexities. SpaceX will have to first launch several “tanker” Starships to space to serve as gas stations for the ultimate moon-bound Starship, which will need extra fuel to land on and launch from the lunar surface. That requires a spate of orbital refueling tests, with two Starships mating in orbit — a technically tricky and risky endeavor.

A potentially lucrative portfolio of missions for SpaceX lies at the end of Starship’s development phase.

Government astronauts won’t be Starship’s only passengers. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire and the founder of the clothing retailer Zozo, announced in 2018 with Mr. Musk at SpaceX’s Southern California headquarters his intent to fly around the moon and back aboard Starship with eight fellow passengers. That mission, announced for 2023, will almost certainly be delayed. Mr. Maezawa did not wait for SpaceX to make his first trip beyond Earth, flying aboard a Russian spacecraft in December 2021 for a 12-day stay on the International Space Station.

Starship is also poised to be the centerpiece of SpaceX’s revenue-generating launch business by flying satellites from commercial and government customers. The company says the rocket will be crucial for launching the satellites for SpaceX’s satellite internet venture, Starlink. Thousands more Starlink satellites are needed to complete the constellation. Starship could launch hundreds at a time, up from about 60 that can fit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Despite its power and bigger size, the rocket system is intended to be cheaper than the Falcon 9, primarily because of its reusable design. Mr. Musk has suggested, without any detailed explanation, that Starship flights could cost as low as $2 million per launch (each Falcon 9 costs roughly $62 million).

Carissa Christensen, the chief executive of Bryce Tech, an analytics firm that tracks the launch market, says launching Starship frequently will be key to closing SpaceX’s business case, but finding customers to fill the rocket’s giant payload capacity will be challenging.

“Starship’s payload capacity is huge; it’s very, very big, and there aren’t that many commercial uses today for a rocket that big,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be so cheap that it makes sense to launch satellites on it if it’s not full, or near full.”

Astronomers, on the other hand, see Starship’s massive capacity as a new opportunity for sending bigger and more ambitious telescopes into space. With today’s rockets, scientists “face strict limits of mass and volume, which boxes the physical footprint and capabilities of instruments into a tight corner,” said Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

“With those constraints relaxed, and the launch cost lower because of a rapidly reusable vehicle, Starship really expands the work space within which scientists and engineers can create novel missions,” said Dr. Tripathi, who previously worked at SpaceX.

The U.S. military has its own concepts for SpaceX rockets. The Air Force in January gave SpaceX $102 million to study using the spacecraft as a cargo ship that could deploy resources to various parts of the world in a matter of minutes, or point-to-point transportation. Potentially, Starship would launch to orbit and re-enter over a particular region to deliver humanitarian supplies or military cargo in a fraction of the time needed by traditional military aircraft. The legality and logistics of such a concept, though, remain uncertain.

In the past decade, the idea of Starship has taken many forms.

The rocket has even had other names: Mars Colonial Transporter, Interplanetary Transport System and B.F.R. (which, officially at least, stood for Big Falcon Rocket). Via tweet, Mr. Musk changed the name to Starship in 2018. The design of the rocket has also morphed — the landing legs and the shape of its aerodynamic fins have changed, but its shiny steel exterior has remained. An elevator was added to the Starship concept that will land on the moon for NASA, allowing astronauts to descend to the surface from Starship’s crew section at the top.

The engines that power Starship, Raptor, have also evolved, with the current version called Raptor 2. But a “complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine that can actually make life multiplanetary,” Mr. Musk said last year of the engines.

“It won’t be called Raptor.”

And then there’s the matter of surviving a journey to Mars. When asked about developing life support systems for long-term journeys in 2019, Mr. Musk blithely said, “I don’t think it’s actually super hard to do that, relative to the spacecraft itself.”

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