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Elon Musk at Starship
SpaceX CEO stands in front of a darkly gleaming Starship Mk1 prototype as he outlines his plan for testing and launching the spaceship. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk set a revved-up timeline tonight for testing and building a fleet of Starship rocket ships that he says would eventually take people on trips to the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations.

Standing in front of SpaceX’s newly constructed Starship Mk1 prototype at the company’s South Texas facility, Musk said he expected the first 12-mile-high test flight to take place in a month or two.

His timeline called for building up to four more versions of the super-rocket and conducting the first orbital launch within six months. The next version, dubbed Starship Mk2, is already taking shape at SpaceX’s Florida facilities.

The first crewed orbital mission could take place as early as next year, Musk said.

In the past, even Musk has acknowledged that his timelines tend to be overly optimistic, but tonight he suggested that’s a feature, not a bug.

“If the schedule’s long, it’s wrong,” he told a crowd of journalists, employees and fans. “If it’s tight, it’s right.”

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype stands alongside a first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket, which had its first successful orbital launch in 2008. If you look closely at this picture from SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, you can see people to the left of the Starship rocket. (SpaceX via Twitter)

A hurry-up schedule certainly worked for producing the Starship Mk1, a 165-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide prototype that looks like the shiny, pointy-topped rockets envisioned in the 1950s. It took shape over the course of mere weeks, following up on last month’s “short hop” test of a smaller prototype nicknamed Starhopper.

That prototype was equipped with one of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, and rose to a height of 500 feet at Boca Chica. Starship Mk1 triples the oomph, with three Raptors.

Tonight’s talk was a follow-up to big-picture presentations that Musk delivered at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016 in Mexico, and in 2017 in Australia. As he did in those earlier talks, Musk laid out the rationale for spending billions of dollars on a launch system capable of carrying people to Mars.

“There are many troubles in the world, of course, and these are important and we need to solve them,” he said. “But we also need things that make us excited to be alive. … Space exploration is one of those things.”

Musk said establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars is a key part of his vision to ensure the survival of earthly life, even if troubles arise on Earth.

“It appears that consciousness is a very rare and precious thing,” he said. “We should take whatever steps we can to preserve the life of consciousness. The window has been opened. … Only now, after 4.5 billion years, has that window opened. That’s a long time to wait, and it might not stay open for long.”

Musk traced SpaceX’s history from its tenuous founding and noted that it’s been only 11 years since the first successful orbital flight of the company’s now-retired Falcon 1 rocket. A model of the Falcon 1 was displayed alongside the mammoth Starship Mk1 to demonstrate how far SpaceX has come.

Starship is designed to take advantage of advances in spacecraft construction as well as avionics. It’s made of thin stainless steel, which is cheaper than carbon composite and better able to stand up to the heat of atmospheric re-entry.

Musk said the windward side of the future orbital-class version would be coated with a ceramic heat-shield material. During descent, it’s meant to face its windward side into the atmosphere to reduce velocity, and will fly something of a zigzag course to touch down on its six landing legs.

“It’ll look totally nuts to see that thing land,” Musk said.

The orbital-class Starship spaceship would have six Raptors, and it’d be launched atop a Super Heavy booster with anywhere between 24 and 37 Raptor engines, Musk said.

“You can actually add or subtract engines as you like. You basically just need a lot of force pushing up,” he said. “Over time, I think you probably want around a 7,500-ton-force rocket, which is about twice the thrust of a Saturn V.”

Potential applications range from deploying thousands of satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation in low Earth orbit, to sending Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and other travelers around the moon in the early 2020s, to delivering the goods for a “Moon Base Alpha” on the lunar surface, to transporting 100 settlers at a time to Mars beginning in the mid- to late 2020s.

Musk said SpaceX is working on an in-orbit refueling system to top off Starship’s tanks for trips to the moon and Mars.

When it came to estimating the time frame for turning his Starship vision into a reality, Musk acknowledged that he was operating in “stream of consciousness” mode. The development schedule that he laid out is dependent of getting the required approvals from Federal Aviation Administration. That could be a bottleneck for Musk’s launch schedule, but he said he felt “pretty optimistic about things.”

Looking farther ahead, Musk said Starship would have roughly 1,000 cubic meters of pressurized space, which is about as much room as there is inside the International Space Station. (Musk suggested it’s possible to fit 100 people inside that space, even though the space station is typically home to just six long-term spacefliers.)

Musk also said that it’d be theoretically possible to launch each Starship three times a day, and send 150 tons of payload into orbit with each flight. If SpaceX builds a fleet of 20 Starships, as Musk hopes, that fleet would be capable of sending 3 million tons of payload into orbit annually. However, such calculations result in an eyebrow-raising rate of 60 launches per day.

“We’re talking about something that is, with a fleet of Starships, 1,000 times more than all Earth capacity combined. … But you kind of need that if you’re going to build a city on Mars, so it’s got to be done,” Musk said.

Other tidbits from Musk’s talk:

  • Before the presentation, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine sent out a tweet noting that SpaceX and Boeing are years behind schedule on their efforts to build commercial space taxis for the space agency — and essentially urged SpaceX to focus as much enthusiasm on the Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon development effort as it’s focusing on Starship. In response to a question about Bridenstine’s comments, Musk said Starship was taking up less than 5 percent of SpaceX’s resources. “Our resources are overwhelmingly on Falcon and Dragon,” he said.
  • Musk acknowledged that his anticipated launch schedule for Starship prototypes could be “quite disruptive” to residents surrounding SpaceX’s Boca Chica site. He noted that SpaceX is offering to buy the residents’ property, but news reports suggest that some of them are unwilling to sell, at least for now.
  • SpaceX is working on technologies to convert carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere and water ice extracted from Martian soil into methane and oxygen, which are the propellants for Starship’s Raptor engines. Such a conversion (CO2 + 2H2O → CH4 + 2O2) could be used for fuel production on Earth as well, and it could help counter carbon dioxide emissions. “The long-term outcome will be quite sustainable for Earth and Mars,” Musk said.
  • In response to a question, Musk said the tunneling technologies being pioneered by another one of his ventures, the Boring Company, could come in handy for building underground habitats Mars. And he acknowledged that Tesla’s electric-vehicle technology could be applied to Mars rovers as well. “Teslas will work on Mars … because electric cars don’t need air,” he noted.
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