Space odyssey: Elon Musk talks Starship at Boca Chica

Boca Chica became synonymous with cutting-edge space exploration the day SpaceX broke ground on its build/test/launch site here, even if it took a few years for activity to truly begin at the site.

Now things have taken off, literally, and are about to again within the next couple of months.

The spotlight grew brighter once SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced he would there deliver his Sept. 28 “Starship Update) (live-streamed on YouTube and seen by more than a million viewers around the world), and brighter still as the extent of Boca Chica’s role in the company’s plans became clear during Musk’s talk.

Sept. 28 was the 11th anniversary of the 17-year-old, Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s maiden flight of its first rocket, Falcon 1. The stage from which Musk delivered his presentation, and afterward answered questions from reporters, was set up at the foot of the newly assembled, 165-foot-tall Starship Mk1 prototype, gleaming in its stainless steel cladding, the nose cone illuminated by a spotlight, the humble Falcon 1 displayed nearby.

The Mk1 is the first full prototype of the spacecraft the company is developing to land humans on Mars for the purpose of establishing a self-sustaining settlement there, to make humanity a multi-planetary species in order to help ensure its survival.

At the site’s September 2014 groundbreaking, Musk said “it could very well be that the first person that departs for another planet could depart from this location.” Responding to a question from The Brownsville Herald on Saturday night, Musk said “it’s definitely possible that the first crewed mission on Starship could leave from Boca (Chica).”

Crews at Boca Chica and a SpaceX facility near Cape Canaveral, Fla., have been competing to build Starship’s first two prototypes. Construction on the Mk1 at Boca Chica began four or five months ago. Mk2 is still under construction near the Cape.

“To the best of my knowledge, both places will launch crewed missions,” Musk said. “So I think it is extremely likely that we will launch crewed missions from Boca, and there is at least a 50-percent chance that it is the first mission.”

The company’s Starhopper, a crude, single-engined prototype resembling a water tower, on Aug. 27 flew to an altitude of 500 feet and touched down again in a controlled landing. Musk said the Mk1, weighing about 200 tons and with its three SpaceX-designed Raptor engines already installed, should be ready to first launch within two months.

“This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet — about 20 kilometers — and come back and land,” he said. “It’s really going to be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back.”

SpaceX’s next Starship launch could be all the way into orbit with a booster (dubbed “Super Heavy”) that will accommodate 37 Raptor engines but probably only need 31 to get Starship to low-earth orbit, Musk said. The Starship and Super Heavy combined will stand nearly two and a half times taller than the Starship by itself, he said.

“Most likely we would not fly to orbit with Mk1, but we would fly to orbit with Mk3, which will be built after Mk1 right here,” Musk said. “In fact, we will start building it in about a month.”

The Mk3 will be constructed at Boca Chica and the Mk4 in Florida, he said. Each will have six Raptor engines apiece. While the Mk1 and Mk2 are made from stainless steel plates, the Mk3 will use a different method, Musk said. The panels of the Mk1 resemble funhouse mirrors, though the new method should produce a sleeker looking craft.

“With Mk3 and beyond, we will literally take the coil of steel from the mill, unspool it, change the curvature to a nine-meter diameter, and do a single seam weld,” Musk said. “And it will also be thinner, which makes it lighter and cheaper.”

The company plans to build Starships at a highly accelerated pace by space industry standards, shooting for completion of the Mk2 within two months, the Mk3 within three months and the Mk4 in four or five months, he said.

“Just to frame things, we are going to be building ships and boosters at Boca and the Cape as fast as we can,” Musk said. “It’s going to be really nutty to see a bunch of these things. I mean, not just one but a whole stack of them. We’re improving both the design and the manufacturing method exponentially. … This is going to sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months.”

Starship flights with people aboard could happen as early as next year, he said.

“With any development into uncharted territory, it is difficult to predict these things with precision, but I do think that things are going to move very fast,” he said.

SpaceX’s profile at Boca Chica will continue to grow, meanwhile.

“It will definitely get fancier than it currently is,” Musk said. “The reason it’s not fancier is just because it would have taken too long to build the buildings. Since it was going to take so long to build the buildings, we just built (Mk1) outside.”

Among the invitees to Musk’s presentation were a number of local elected officials, among them Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, who afterward called Musk “one of the greatest minds of our time.”

“Hearing him speak about the future of SpaceX from just a few feet away was surreal,” Mendez said. “I sincerely hope that the Boca Chica facility begins launches that will be visible by the public soon, as they are definitely intrigued by the idea of the space industry at Boca Chica.”

While the company hasn’t been a significant economic driver so far, Mendez predicted that the city will be able to “tap into the trillion-dollar space industry going forward.”

“I’m excited at the possibilities that lie ahead, while at the same time tempering my expectations as much as possible,” he said. “The city will certainly continue to move forward with other facets of growth in the coming years.”

Cameron County Eddie Trevino Jr. also attended, afterward describing the Mk1 as “pretty impressive,” ditto the progress SpaceX has made in such a relatively short time. He said he was excited to hear Musk’s vision for the future, a vision that sounds less outlandish as the company continues to hit milestones.

Trevino said he understands that SpaceX means change — particularly impacting residents of nearby Boca Chica Village — though he thinks more and more people have concluded that the benefits of the company’s presence outweigh the costs, and that he’s hearing much less criticism from constituents these days.

“For the area, the county, the state — it’s big,” Trevino said. “You can’t help but be excited about what this could mean for the future. … Everybody keeps saying what does it mean. I think it means an extremely bright future for the area. I think it’s worth a chance to play our part with a visionary like Elon Musk, to go along for the ride, literally.”