Elon Musk lost his claim to the most powerful rocket worthy of use in space when NASA launched its own mega rocket to the moon last November.
But the SpaceX founder may reclaim the title with his company’s next big project: Starship.
Although the company was unsuccessful on its first attempt on April 20 — the skyscraper-raising rocket and spacecraft blasted off only to spin out of control moments later and explode — SpaceX is confident its Starship will soon reach space, breaking records and writing history.
UPDATE: November 13, 2023, 10:31 am EST SpaceX is preparing to launch Starship for the second time as early as November 17, according to a recent post by the company on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter. For that to happen, the Federal Aviation Administration must issue a launch license to SpaceX. Approval will depend on whether the FAA believes the team has completed all corrective actions stemming from an investigation since the first launch attempt in April.
During its next orbital test flight, the colossal booster should separate about three minutes after liftoff and fall into the Gulf of Mexico, according to federal documents. It must then fly in space around Earth at an altitude of more than 150 miles before falling off the coast of Hawaii. The whole trip should take about 1.5 hours if it goes according to plan.
It’s an important demonstration of hardware that NASA is counting on to get humans back to the moon in the next few years. And if he succeeds, it will mean that Musk is one small step closer to realizing his personal dream of building a city on Mars.
The billionaire business mogul has resold graphics in the past. Here’s what we know so far about when SpaceX will attempt this daunting feat again.
The SpaceX Starship explosion was intentional
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What is SpaceX Starship?
Starship is a super heavy rocket and spacecraft designed to carry huge cargo and multiple astronauts into deep space.
The 400-foot tall stainless steel tower towers over NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. It would take about five billboards stacked on top of the latter to measure up to Musk’s space vehicle. SpaceX estimates that its rocket also has about twice the thrust.
The rocket is made of stainless steel, a material that Musk particularly likes because of its relatively low cost. Unlike NASA’s mega moon rocket, which flies on super-cooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen, this beast is fueled by 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen. The new fuel can be stored at more manageable temperatures than liquid hydrogen, meaning it doesn’t need as much insulation and is less prone to leaks, a problem that often stymies NASA launches.
SpaceX’s Starship is made of stainless steel and runs on liquid methane.
Starship is intended to eventually evolve into a reusable launch and landing system designed for trips to the Moon, Mars and other destinations. Its reusability is the “holy grail of space,” Musk said at a company event in South Texas in February 2022, because it will make spaceflight more accessible to the average person.
“It’s very hard to do,” he said. “That’s hardly possible with Earth physics.”
“That’s hardly possible with Earth physics.”
NASA is using SpaceX to develop a human landing system version of Starship.
How will NASA use Starship?
NASA plans to use Starships to land astronauts on the moon during Artemis III and IV, two upcoming missions that could occur as early as 2025 and 2028, respectively.
The space agency has tapped SpaceX to develop a human landing system version of Starship with a $4 billion contract. As part of the deal, the company will have to first demonstrate an unmanned test flight to the moon.
During Artemis III, the Starship is supposed to ferry astronauts from NASA’s Orion spacecraft to the Moon’s south pole and back. But in the fourth mission, Starship will dock at a lunar orbiting space station, Gateway, which has yet to be built, and ferry astronauts back and forth to the moon.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters in December 2022 that SpaceX was on schedule with the contract and intended to perform an unmanned lunar landing by the end of that year. This mission will be followed by another landing with astronauts in late 2024.
But NASA’s confidence in Starship appears to have soured over the summer. During an Artemis press conference in August, the space agency’s Jim Free, associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters that NASA may change the Artemis III mission goals if schedule slippages continue to occur.
“My concern is the same because they haven’t started,” Free said.
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When is the Starship launch into space?
SpaceX already tried to fly the Starship once, but failed to reach space.
The missile launched on April 20, exploding 24 miles over the Gulf of Mexico about four minutes later. The rocket did not separate from its colossal booster and flipped as it fell through the air back to Earth. SpaceX said the self-destruct system was commanded for both the booster and the spacecraft after several of the engines failed to fire. Some debris fell into the ocean after the rocket exploded on descent.
In a more extensive statement released Sept. 8, SpaceX said the back end of the booster ignited from a fuel leak that severed communication with the main flight computer.
“This resulted in loss of communications with most of the booster engines and ultimately loss of control of the vehicle,” the statement said. “SpaceX has since implemented leak mitigations and improved testing of both the engine and booster hardware.”
SpaceX’s Starship failed to enter orbit during its first attempt to fly into space on April 20, 2023. It appeared to explode on its descent about four minutes after liftoff.
The company also said it has increased the rocket’s fire protection system, reinforced the launch pad and installed a flame deflector to deal with the damage caused by the launch.
SpaceX also provided additional information about the explosion. Although the vehicle was ordered to self-destruct, there was an “unexpected delay” in activation, meaning aerodynamic pressure ultimately caused the Starship to disintegrate, not the explosives — the former being a possible cause, reported by Mashable on April 22 . SpaceX officials say it has since made improvements to the self-destruct system.
It is not clear when the next attempt will take place. However SpaceX says it has been ready since September — and the rocket is lined up and waiting — the FAA has yet to reissue a launch license. After an accident investigation into the failed April test, the agency said it would have to assess whether SpaceX had implemented 63 corrective actions. Musk posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, to say so SpaceX has done its due diligence when making the modifications.
The second flight test will “debut a hot stage separation system and a new electronic thrust vector control (TVC) system for the Super Heavy Raptor engines, in addition to reinforcements to the pad base and a water-cooled steel deflector, among many other improvements ,” according to SpaceX.
“My anxiety is the same because they haven’t started.”
Where will Starship launch?
Perhaps surprisingly, Starship will not launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where most space fans are accustomed to watching historically significant launches.
Instead, it will launch from Boca Chica, Texas, at SpaceX’s own spaceport known as Starbase. Eventually, the company will launch the rocket from a facility under construction on the outer perimeter of the famous Florida site that launched Apollo 11 to the moon.
“Their plan is they’re going to do some test flights there” in South Texas, Nelson said. “Once they have the trust, they will bring the missions to the Cape.”
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How can I watch Starship launch?
If you’re not on the entry list for SpaceX’s private Starbase, but you’re in the South Texas area, you can try watching future flight tests from a public beach on South Padre Island, like Isla Blanca Park.
For viewers at home, SpaceX will begin live streaming the launch countdown about 30 minutes before liftoff. The live stream will be available on the SpaceX website and @SpaceX account feed on X, the social platform owned by Musk. You can watch the previous ordeal, from ignition to explosion, here starting at 44:54:
What is the probability that the Starship will succeed?
Well, SpaceX has already struck on the first launch, and it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“We’ve cleared the (launch) tower, which frankly was our only hope,” Kate Tice, the company’s manager of quality systems engineering, said during the live broadcast of the launch.
SpaceX launched partial Starship prototypes to practice landings, and several exploded or crashed in the process. However, one managed to return unscathed in May 2021 after flying about six miles up in the sky.
Musk, who doesn’t mince words when it comes to the realities of spaceflight, once said that a Starship test in space was unlikely to succeed on the first try.
“There’s a lot of risk involved with this first launch, so I wouldn’t say it’s likely to be successful.”
“There’s a lot of risk involved with this first launch, so I wouldn’t say it’s likely to be successful,” he said during a video conference with a panel of the National Academies in 2021. “But I think we’re going to make a lot of progress. “
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Administrator Nelson congratulated SpaceX for the bold effort on April 20, saying that major achievements in history required “a certain level of calculated risk.”
What is SpaceX’s plan for Mars?
The SpaceX founder’s ultimate vision is to use a fleet of starships to send 1 million people to Mars by 2050.
To be clear, Musk doesn’t just want to create a place for people to visit, but a self-sustaining city. He imagines that with a little warming, humans could restore Mars’ dense atmosphere and oceans, making it a more hospitable environment, even able to grow crops.
“There’s a fundamental relationship in the history of every single civilization on a planet, which is, do you get to the second planet or not?” Musk said at the 2021 National Academies. -soon.”
SpaceX test launched a prototype Starship spacecraft to Earth in December.
“There is a fundamental relationship in the history of every single civilization on a planet, which is, do you get to the second planet or not?”
The spacecraft will be spacious enough for 100 passengers, along with their luggage, plus the materials to build homes, businesses, rocket fuel stations and iron foundries.
The journey there will be long, Musk said, but the Starship will have entertainment, such as zero-gravity games, movies, lectures and a restaurant.
“It can’t feel cramped or boring,” he told the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. “It will be really fun to go. You’re going to have a great time.”
Note: A version of this article was originally published on February 4, 2023. It has been updated to reflect progress in the Starship launch campaign.