SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, in a Dec. 27 Twitter post, expressed his hope that the Starship prototype under construction at the company’s Boca Chica Beach launch and test complex will fly in two or three months.
SpaceX is moving quickly on construction of the vehicle, formerly known as Starship Mk3 and lately rechristened Starship V1.0, SN1, since the first full-size prototype (Mk1) was damaged during a pressurization test on Nov. 20. The plan had been to launch the non-orbital Mk1 to 65,000 feet, though Musk said the company decided even before the Nov. 20 incident that Mk1 would not fly.
He described Mk1 as a “valuable manufacturing pathfinder,” but said design of the Mk3/SN1 would be substantially different. On Dec. 27 and Dec. 30, Musk tweeted video of Boca Chica crews at work on Starship “tank domes,” which he called the most difficult part of the spacecraft’s primary structure. Musk noted in the way of praise that the Boca Chica team was “crushing it.” SpaceX has diverted manpower from its Florida Starship yard to the site 24 miles east of Brownsville.
The SN1 is being designed for orbital flight, which the company is aiming for this year. Musk tweeted that every Starship V1.0 through at least SN20 would feature minor improvements in some form. “V” stands for “version” and “SN” for “serial number.” During a live presentation at Boca Chica on Sept. 28, Musk said SpaceX intends to build Starships and Super Heavy booster rockets (for pushing Starships into Earth orbit) as fast as it can.
Super Heavy is designed for 37 SpaceX Raptor engines. Starship will be fitted with six. The Starship-Super Heavy configuration, collectively “Starship,” is intended to carry passengers, crew and cargo to Earth orbit, between destinations on Earth, and to the moon and Mars, according to SpaceX. Starship and Super Heavy together would stand 383 feet tall and constitute the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.
Musk said via Twitter that Starship production is concentrated at Boca Chica for now while SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft activity takes place at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Unlike the company’s previous builds at Boca Chica, SN2 construction, scheduled to start this month, will be done in an “enclosed (fairly) clean room environment,” Musk tweeted.
The 160-by-30-foot Starship is made from stainless steel. While stainless steel welding is less troublesome than aluminum, the “very windy” conditions at Boca Chica do present challenges for welders, Musk said.
SpaceX ceremonially broke ground on the Boca Chica site in September 2014, with Musk and then-Gov. Rick Perry on hand. The company’s first test flight at the site took place on Aug. 27, 2019, when the squat, single-engine Starhopper flew to an altitude of 500 feet before setting down again in a controlled landing. The flight lasted 57.36 seconds.
In 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon C2 unmanned space capsule became the world’s first commercial spacecraft to berth with the International Space Station, via a giant robotic arm attached to the ISS. On March 2, 2019, the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft became the first American spacecraft in history to autonomously dock with the ISS. The uncrewed demonstration flight (Demo-1) was the first major test in SpaceX’s run-up to carrying astronauts to the ISS under a contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
An explosion eventually traced to a leaky valve destroyed that spacecraft during a ground test in Florida in April. Another Dragon was built, with redesigned components, and an in-flight abort test of the capsule is scheduled for Jan. 18. The new Crew Dragon will be launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
The demonstration (Demo-2) is planned as the last major flight test for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program before NASA approves Dragon for carrying astronauts. If the abort test goes well, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft to and from the ISS, probably later this year.
While the Dragon program is focused on getting astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS, the ultimate goal of the Starship program is to make humans interplanetary, with the capacity to create settlements on Mars and other planets, to help ensure survival of the species, according to Musk.