Musk emphasizes progress in Starship production over testing

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the company is making “good progress” on its next-generation Starship launch vehicle despite delays in the schedule of test flights of the vehicle.

In an interview broadcast during the Humans to Mars Summit by the advocacy group Explore Mars Aug. 31, Musk emphasized the progress the company has made not on test flights of the vehicle but instead development of production facilities for Starship at Boca Chica, Texas.

“We’re making good progress. The thing that we’re really making progress on with Starship is the production system,” he said, referring to the growing campus at Boca Chica. “A year ago there was almost nothing there and now we’ve got quite a lot of production capability.”

Those facilities have cranked out a series of prototypes of Starship, which is intended to serve as the upper stage of the overall launch system. Musk said that construction will start this week on “booster prototype one,” a reference to the Super Heavy first stage of the system.

That production capability, he argued, is essential to the long-term development of the overall launch system. “Making a prototype of something is, I think, relatively easy,” he said. “But building the production system so that you can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships, that’s the hard part.”

That focus on production belies the lack of progress on actual testing of the vehicle. At a September 2019 event at Boca Chica, Musk, with a Starship prototype standing behind him, said that the vehicle would fly to an altitude of 20 kilometers in one or two months. “I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” he said, a schedule he said at the time was accurate to “within a few months.”

Eleven months later, a Starship prototype has flown only once: an Aug. 4 “hop” test of a prototype known as SN5 that flew to an estimated altitude of 150 meters before landing on a nearby pad. Another prototype, SN6, was being prepared for a similar hop test Aug. 30 that was scrubbed for undisclosed reasons. Four other prototypes were destroyed in ground tests prior to the SN5 flight.

Musk, asked when Starship would make its first orbital flight, said, “Probably next year.” He didn’t specify if that would be the Starship vehicle alone or the full stack with the Super Heavy booster. “I hope we do a lot of flights. The first ones might not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody’s ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket.”

He later said he expected the launch system, ultimately intended to transport people to Mars, will do “hundreds of missions with satellites before we put people on board.”

Musk quoted a cost estimate for developing Starship of $5 billion, a figure he has stated in the past. He played down the NASA Human Landing System award the company received in April, valued at $135 million, to study using the Starship system as a means for landing NASA astronauts on the moon for the Artemis program. “Definitely the NASA support is appreciated,” he said. “It’s helpful, but it’s not a gamechanger.”

The overall design of the system is still evolving. While SpaceX previously described Super Heavy as having 31 Raptor engines, Musk said the final number may be less. “We might have fewer than 31 engines on the booster, because we’re trying to simplify the configuration,” he said. “It might be 28 engines. It’s still a lot of engines.”

Musk spent a large chunk of the nearly half-hour interview going into technical details about the Raptor engines that will power Starship, discussing chamber pressures, thrust-to-weight ratios and specific impulse. But asked what he thought what sort of headline would accompany a successful human Mars landing, he was stumped. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he said, settling on “humanity is on Mars.”

“We need a lot of people fired up to go to Mars,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of risky, but kind of a cool, fun adventure.”