The Starship, SpaceX's planned giant rocket designed to send humans to Mars, is in for a packed couple of months.
Throughout last weekend, CEO Elon Musk outlined how the stainless steel behemoth will move from its current 150-meter hop tests to even more ambitious trials. These will pave the way for its initial operations, which are expected to range from small-scale satellite launches, to realizing Musk's grand plan to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars as soon as 2050.
"I want to emphasize, this is a very hard and dangerous and difficult thing. Not for the faint of heart. Good chance you'll die. And it's going to be tough, tough going, but it'll be pretty glorious if it works out."
Musk first unveiled a full-size Starship prototype at the company's Boca Chica development facility in Texas in September 2019. "Starship Mk.1" measured the same 160 feet high and 30 feet wide as the final ship is expected to measure. When paired with a Super Heavy booster that will enable it to leave the Earth, the final construction will measure around 400 feet tall. The ship will use this power to transport 150 tons, or 100 people, into space at a time.
During the interview and on his Twitter page, Musk revealed a number of details about the ship that have evolved during development. The most important is that, thanks to improvements in the Raptor engine power, the Super Heavy booster may only need 28 engines rather than the previously-expected 31 engines. The booster is now also expected to use four legs to stand on the ground rather than six, a change that Musk claims is designed "to avoid engine plume impingement in vacuum."
Last month, the ship completed a 150-meter jump with the "SN5" ship prototype.
Here's what to expect next:
Right now – Super Heavy construction
SpaceX has started construction on the Super Heavy booster, Musk revealed during the Twitch interview. He referred to the build as "booster prototype one."
September/October – Super Heavy hop test
On Twitter, Musk claimed the team "might have a prototype booster hop done" by SpaceX's next Starship event. This is currently expected for October 2020, which means that SpaceX may attempt to fly a prototype within the next 60 days.
October – Starship presentation
SpaceX will "probably" hold a presentation in October, Musk claimed via Twitter. It will likely provide an update on the company's progress, and reveal more about next steps for Starship. It could follow a format similar to SpaceX's September 2019 event, which showcased the first full-size prototype, and gave more detail about the company's plans for the coming months.
2021 – Orbital flight
During Monday's interview, Musk claimed Starship's first orbital flight would happen "probably next year," in 2021. But don't hold your breath.
"The first ones might not work," Musk said. "This is uncharted territory. Nobody's ever made a full reusable orbital rocket. Just having that at all is pretty significant."
It wouldn't be the first time SpaceX has failed to reach orbit as planned. The company's first rocket, the Falcon 1, took four tries to reach orbit. And after Virgin Orbit failed in its first attempt to reach orbit in May this year, Musk wrote via Twitter that "orbit is hard."
2022 – Mars mission?
After the first orbital flight, SpaceX has even grander plans. It's set to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, along with a team of six to eight artists, around the Moon in 2022. In June 2020, Musk also claimed he's sticking to his ambitious timetable for future Mars missions: cargo missions by 2022, and crewed missions by 2024.
The pressure is on.