What Elon Musk Did and Didn’t Reveal About SpaceX’s Rocket

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Written by Kenneth Chang

On an outdoor stage in South Texas, between screens of slick computer animation and a giant, glowing real rocket behind him, Elon Musk provided his latest update on his dreams of sending people to settle on Mars on Thursday evening. night.

But while Musk’s presentation was vivid in detailing his vision for humanity’s interplanetary future, he was more circumspect about the operational details of the massive SpaceX Starship rocket that is critical to those and other goals. The spacecraft must clear numerous technical and regulatory hurdles before it can fly into orbit or fulfill a multibillion-dollar contract to land NASA astronauts on the moon, let alone colonize the Red Planet.

But on stage Thursday night, Musk said he thought Starship would be able to establish a self-sufficient city on Mars, which he said would require bringing a million tons of material from Earth.

“This is the first point in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history that has been possible,” Musk said. “We have to seize the opportunity and do it as quickly as possible. I want to be frank: civilization feels a bit fragile these days.”

After an animated video of an imaginary Mars colony serviced by SpaceX vehicles, Musk yelled, “Let’s make it happen!”

For several years, SpaceX has been working on Starship, which would be the most powerful rocket in history. Also, unlike any previous rocket, it would be completely reusable. That has the potential to greatly reduce the cost of sending payloads into orbit (less than $10 million to carry 100 tons into space) and may be possible within a few years, Musk said.

In recent years, SpaceX has conducted a series of test flights of the top of the spacecraft that must go to orbit and then return, showing how it could belly-fall into the atmosphere and then land. One of the flights, in May 2021, was a success while the others ended in explosions. Getting to orbit requires the use of an even larger booster stage, known as the Super Heavy, with dozens of engines. That has not been tested yet.

Musk, however, has routinely made schedule predictions that were overly optimistic. When he first talked about his rocket to Mars in 2016, then an even bigger design, he said that the first test trip to Mars, with no people on board, would launch in 2022, and that the first people to travel to Mars would they would do two years later. .

When Musk gave an update in September 2019, he predicted that the first orbital flight would occur within six months.

But with 2022 already here, SpaceX has yet to attempt a Starship orbital launch.

In Thursday’s talk, he expressed confidence it would happen this year, but remained vague about details.

His talk, at the site SpaceX calls Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville, mixed a variety of obscene comments while largely repeating the vision he had outlined in the past, including his arguments for why humanity needed to expand. beyond Earth, as a backup plan for humanity’s survival.

He also responded to critics who say space is a waste of time and money, noting how little of the federal budget actually goes to spaceflight and exploration.

“I’m just suggesting that we’d like maybe half a percent or something, that would probably be fine,” Musk said, referring to the budget for space.

He mixed up technical details about the improvements the company has made to the next version of the engines used for Starship. “So the only remaining issue that we’re aware of is melting the chamber,” Musk said, describing the intense heat generated by the motor. “Just not melting the camera is very difficult,” Musk continued. “It’s like the last challenge left. But I think we’re very close to solving that.”

He was hoping that an environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration would soon give SpaceX the go-ahead to attempt an orbit launch from Boca Chica. “We’ve gotten kind of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March,” Musk said.

If that were to happen, an orbital launch attempt could happen in “a couple of months” or potentially in May, he said.

But he also admitted that if the FAA decided a more comprehensive environmental review was needed, SpaceX would shift launches to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and that would cause a six to eight month delay in modifying the launch pad there for the massive starship. .

In addition to eventual trips to Mars, NASA will use Starship to transport astronauts from orbit around the moon to the surface of the moon. The company won a $2.9 billion contract for the mission, beating out other bidders that included Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and defense contractor Dynetics. The moon landing is scheduled, on paper, for 2025, but it is expected to be delayed. In addition to the work on Starship, returning astronauts to the moon requires the Space Launch System, another large rocket under development by NASA that is also behind schedule.

For the moon mission, SpaceX would also have to be able to recharge a starship’s propellant tanks while it’s in orbit around Earth. Musk said a series of Starship tankers would launch every few hours with propellant for the rocket destined for the moon.

Musk said he didn’t see a conflict between working at NASA and his biggest dreams.

“We’re going to make a lot of boats, a lot of thrusters,” he said. “Adding legs to land on the moon, that can be done pretty quickly.” And Musk was confident that his giant rocket would work. Although there will most likely be bumps in the road along the way, he said he, “we’ll do it.”

This article originally appeared on The New York Times.

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