Elon Musk, defending the value of space travel, presents SpaceX’s Starship as the ‘holy grail’

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CAMERON COUNTY, Texas — Standing under the towering profile of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, CEO Elon Musk on Thursday he gave his speech to build a vehicle that he believes represents the “holy grail” of space travel.

“This is really wild stuff here,” Musk said, speaking to a crowd of employees, guests and media outlets. “In fact, it’s hard to believe it’s real, except that you know it’s right there.”

Last year saw a historic breakthrough in private manned spaceflight for several companies, including SpaceX, but the perception that billionaires party in rockets drew widespread public derision. Musk opened his presentation with a defense of the value of space transportation, calling it necessary to “establish safety for life itself and have an exciting future and inspire children about the future.”

“One of the rebuttals I sometimes hear is… what about all the problems on Earth?” Musk said.

“I completely agree that the vast majority of resources should be devoted to solving problems on Earth,” Musk continued. He said “over 99% of our resources” should be focused on ground-based challenges, but “perhaps half the percentage” should be focused on space.

Starship is the nearly 400-foot-tall rocket that SpaceX has been developing, with the goal of creating a vehicle that can carry cargo and groups of people beyond Earth.

Starship prototype 20 stacked on top of the Super Heavy 4 booster at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

spacex

Musk presented the rocket as crucial to establishing a human presence on other planetary bodies, such as the Moon and Mars. Further advocating against the idea that space travel is frivolous, Musk declared that traveling to Mars is “far from being some kind of escape route” as “it will be extremely difficult, dangerous and tough”.

Public support for Starship’s development may seem unnecessary, but it’s crucial to the future Musk envisions for SpaceX. While the private company raises billions from investors, SpaceX has won several taxpayer-funded contracts for Starship and the company needs the approval of federal regulators to launch in earnest from its facility on the southernmost part of the coast of the Texas Gulf.

“Objectively, SpaceX’s profitability is the best in history, I think, for any rocket development,” Musk said. “We’re talking about a rocket that has more than twice the mass and thrust of a Saturn V,” the rocket that launched the Apollo lunar missions, “and is also designed to be completely reusable…for a development cost that is, I don’t know, between 5[%] and 10% of the Saturn V”.

“From an environmental point of view,” Musk added, “it’s also obviously much better” to build a “fully reusable” vehicle, since rockets are traditionally discarded after each launch.

‘Under $10 million’ per release

SpaceX has consistently shot down the cost of its current fleet of Falcon 9 rockets to less than $30 million per launch, landing the most expensive part of the rocket and reusing it several times. But, even though Starship is many times larger and expected to cost billions of dollars to develop, Musk says the next-generation rocket will be much less expensive per launch.

“I’m pretty sure it would be less than $10 million,” Musk said.

Key to that cost efficiency is Starship’s projected capability in the amount of orbiting mass each launch can carry, coupled with SpaceX’s goal of completely reusing each rocket and booster in a way that Musk likens to commercial air travel. .

SpaceX has completed multiple high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes, but its next big step is getting into space. While that milestone was expected to be reached last year, development progress has been delayed and the orbital flight test is also pending regulatory approval. SpaceX needs a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, and the regulator is expected to complete a key environmental assessment in about a month.

“There may be some bumps in the road, but… right now I feel very confident that we will get to orbit this year,” Musk said.

A side-by-side of the company’s first- and second-generation Raptor engines, which power the Starship rocket.

The main technical hurdle for Starship currently is the development of its second generation of Raptor engines, which power the rocket and its booster. Each Starship requires seven Raptor engines, and each Super Heavy booster will need 33 engines.

A crisis in Raptor engine development late last year led to the departure of a SpaceX executive. Musk said Thursday that Raptor is the “problem he personally spent the most time” working on, along with developing “full autonomous driving” in Tesla.

The Raptor 2 engines represent “an almost complete redesign” compared to the first generation, Musk said, but they are “significantly streamlined” and more powerful. Raptor 2 also “costs about half” to build, he said, and production is ramping up. The company is “close to achieving” a production rate of one Raptor 2 engine per day, he said.

While SpaceX will need to develop the Starship’s interior and life support systems, with contracts to fly NASA astronauts and private passengers to the moon in the coming years, Musk said the company is “not focusing much” on the issue. nowadays. He pointed to SpaceX’s experience building life support systems for its Dragon spacecraft, which to date has carried 18 people safely into low-Earth orbit.

“That will be important in the future, but our focus right now is just getting to orbit,” Musk said.

The future of Starship in Texas

SpaceX launches Super Heavy Booster 4 in preparation for the company’s first Starship orbital launch.

Elon Musk

The SpaceX CEO also explained why the company chose this area in Texas for Starship manufacturing and launches, saying the facility, dubbed “Starbase,” required “a confluence of factors.”

Musk emphasized that the location represents a clear path to orbit, given the need to launch east to “get help from the Earth’s rotation.” He also features a “good clear area” that is sparsely populated.

“That doesn’t really leave a lot of options. It’s basically here and Cape Canaveral” in Florida, Musk said.

SpaceX resumed construction of a Starship launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but Musk said research and development work on the rocket meant the company “didn’t want to disrupt” current launch operations in Florida. Additionally, Musk said that he believes “Texas has the right amount of rules and regulations” for the experimental project.

The company’s rapid growth in Cameron County has been welcomed by some locals for creating jobs and attracting tourists, but others have criticized it for displacing a beachfront community and endangering the wildlife refuge around it. Starbase. In Starship’s early development, several prototypes failed and were destroyed during testing.

The SN9 prototype starship rocket explodes on impact after a high-altitude test flight on February 2, 2021.

spacex

Environmental concerns are front and center for Starship’s future in Texas, but Musk said he’s “optimistic” SpaceX will receive approval to move forward.

“We don’t have a lot of information on how things are with the FAA. We’ve gotten kind of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March,” Musk said.

“I think this is not something that is harmful to the environment,” he added.

But SpaceX is considering its path forward if a more in-depth environmental assessment is required, as Musk said it would “set us back quite a long time,” with a move to Florida the main alternative.

“In the worst case, we would be delayed six to eight months to build the Cape launch tower and launch [Starship] from there,” Musk said.

In that scenario, Musk said, SpaceX would continue “advanced R&D” work in Texas, such as “testing a new design and new versions of the rocket,” but use Cape Canaveral as Starship’s main base of operations.

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