SpaceX teams have been working 24/7 operations on Starship production at the facility located in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville, Texas. The rocket company is currently working on their first stainless-steel flight vehicle known as Starship SN1. Starship SN1 will be the first prototype to conduct a high-altitude test flight of 20 kilometers. SN1 will liftoff from a launch pad located about 2 miles away, down the road from the assembly facility in Boca Chica. The founder and Chief Engineer of SpaceX Elon Musk says that they could build at least 20 Starship prototypes this year in order to test out different features, and that Starship SN1 to SN20 will each have "minor" changes towards improving the vehicle. The first prototypes SN1 and SN2 are under construction, the first ones will conduct sub-orbital test flights under 100 kilometers using 3 Raptor engines, which are powered by a combination of cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen.
Flight is hopefully 2 to 3 months away— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 28, 2019
Musk suggested SN3, SN4 or SN5 could be the prototype that will be ready to conduct the first orbital trip, in space around Earth. The orbital iteration of Starship will feature 6 Raptor engines. It is still not confirmed from where the orbital version of Starship will lift-off from but its likely to be from Texas if the orbital prototype is manufactured here. Musk said on Thursday that SpaceX is "driving hard" toward an orbital flight this year:
"Driving hard for fully reusable orbital flight this year!"
SpaceX aims to make the final version of Starship fully reusable and capable of transporting 100 passengers plus 100 tons of cargo on long-duration voyages to the moon and Mars. In order to achieve that, Musk said that the ability to progress with the design toward having a space-ready Starship is dependent on having progress between iterations. Musk stated:
"Building many rockets allows for successive approximation. Applying a simple equation to the process: progress in any given technology is the number of iterations multiplied by progress between iterations."
That is how SpaceX will eventually develop a Starship that will transform humans into a space faring civilization. By building many Starship prototypes testing them, iterating as it goes by making changes based on failures in order to improve the craft. Musk said that Starship development is challenging because of the massive scale of the rocket:
"Hardest problem by far is building the production system of something this big. 2nd hardest is achieving full & rapid reuse with payload to orbit of ~2%."
These problems are fundamentally intertwined. Building many rockets allows for successive approximation. Progress in any given technology is simply # of iterations * progress between iterations.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 20, 2020
One day, SpaceX hopes to build as many as 100 Starships a year! So humans could successfully become a multi-planet species. Starship will be the largest rocket-spaceship duo SpaceX has ever designed and manufactured.
Starship will stand 50 meters tall with 9 meters in diameter. It will be capable of long-duration flights with propellant capacity of up to 1,200 tons. The bottom of Starship will contain the propellant and 6 Raptor engines, including 3 sea level raptors, for atmospheric flight and 3 vacuum optimized Raptors, for propulsion in space. The Raptor engine could produce more than 200 tons of thrust at full throttle. Even though Starship by itself will be a powerful spacecraft, it will still require a massive rocket booster to carry it outside of Earth's atmosphere. So, SpaceX also has the challenge to develop the largest rocket booster ever built called Super Heavy. The rocket will be powered by 35 Raptor engines capable of producing 72 meganewtons (MN) of thrust -this would make Starship the most powerful rocket! For perspective, the Saturn V rocket, that took humans to the moon during NASA's Apollo mission was capable of producing 35 MN of thrust, SpaceX would double that. Super Heavy will feature 6 landing legs, have a diameter of 9 meters and a height of 68 meters. Both, Starship and Super Heavy attached together will have a height of 118 meters, with diameter of 9 meters, and be a completely reusable transportation system.
It will be very challenging to develop such an ambitious Starship plan but SpaceX has demonstrated their capacity to develop some of the world's most technologically advanced rockets in history capable of returning from space in order to be reused. Early February, SpaceX held a "Starship Career Day" where Musk was present, the job fair was meant to recruit more employees to speed up Starship production at Boca Chica. The assembly site shows significant progress with the SN1 vehicle, teams have started to stack the stainless-steel propellant dome and rings that make up the SN1 vehicle (video above). SpaceX aims to conduct the first Starship SN1 test flight of 20 kilometers sometime after March 16.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.