A silvery vision to Mars: ‘It’s basically an ICBM that lands’

  • The SpaceX prototype Starship stands in January at the Boca Chica Beach site in Texas. (Tribune News Service photo)
  • An artists rendering of the SpaceX Starship on Mars. (Tribune News Service photo)

BOCA CHICA VILLAGE, Texas — As you drive east along Texas State Highway 4, it looks like a giant, shiny and pointy grain silo is rising out of the scrubby flatland at the tip of southern Texas.

But it is the first version of a spaceship design that Elon Musk, the entrepreneur and founder of the rocket company SpaceX, hopes will be humanity’s first ride to Mars.

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Within a month or two, he says optimistically, this prototype of the Starship spacecraft — without anyone aboard — will blast off to an altitude of 12 miles, then return to the ground in one piece.

“It’s going to be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back,” Musk said late Saturday at a SpaceX facility outside Brownsville, Texas, where Starship is being built.

The update on his megarocket was timed to coincide with the anniversary of SpaceX’s first successful launch 11 years ago. SpaceX has a steady business putting satellites in orbit and carrying cargo to the International Space Station. But whether the company can meet its founder’s aims of taking people to Mars is yet to be seen.

The company’s earliest rocket, Falcon 1, was just 68 feet high, 5 1/2 feet in diameter and could carry a payload of 400 pounds.

Starship, by comparison, is 164 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. It will be paired with a behemoth booster stage called the Super Heavy, and the full rocket will be 387 feet tall and able to lug more than 220,000 pounds to orbit. That would be about as powerful as the Saturn 5 rocket that took NASA astronauts to the moon 50 years ago, but able to fly again and again and again.

By making rockets more like other forms of transportation where the vehicle is not thrown away after one trip, the cost of going to space could plummet.

Musk said an orbital test flight of a refined Starship prototype and the Super Heavy booster could come in less than six months.

“I think we could potentially see people flying next year,” he said.

Musk, who spoke to a couple of reporters after the public portion of the event, said SpaceX could still meet timelines he set out a few years ago — landing a Starship on the moon and Mars within the next few years. Musk, however, has a history of setting aspirational schedules that turn out to be too optimistic.

Despite such futuristic ambitions, the Starship, made of stainless steel, reflected an imperfect, handcrafted sheen of an earlier era.

“It’s like you drove into a Flash Gordon movie or something,” said Andrew Goetsch, who lives in the nearby hamlet of about 30 homes and is thrilled to have a front-row view of Musk’s space dreams, a sentiment not shared by all his neighbors. “It’s not often they build a rocket where you can get close enough for it to fall on you,” Goetsch said.

There are good engineering reasons for the choice of material.

Musk originally had planned to use high-tech carbon fiber, but switched to denser stainless steel. It is cheaper, easier to work with, becomes stronger in the ultracold temperatures of space and has a higher melting temperature that can more easily withstand the heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The Starship is to belly flop in the upper atmosphere at a 60-degree angle, Musk said. Then as it slows and nears the ground, it will rotate to vertical and land.

For the last three years, Musk has repeatedly revised the design — trimming the size, changing the heat shield, adjusting the shape of the fins. “It took quite a while to just frame the problem,” Musk said.

Once the SpaceX engineers settled on the current stainless steel version, the first two prototypes (the other was built in Florida) have been put together at a breakneck pace.

“Ten months ago, there was a lot of barren dirt and nothing,” Goetsch, the Boca Chica neighbor, said of the SpaceX site where Starship now stands.

In August, SpaceX tested a simpler prototype, Starhopper, with a single engine, which Musk earlier compared to a flying water tower. It rose to an altitude of 500 feet, flew sideways and then set down at a different spot.

Experts say the technology of Starship lies within the realm of the possible, without requiring impossible physics or unlikely technological leaps. Indeed, Starship employs many ideas that were studied decades ago but never built.

What is more puzzling to them is how SpaceX can make money with Starship. Musk agreed that it was far larger than necessary to launch current satellites.

For now, Musk conceded, there is not much of a commercial market — “not that’s especially relevant” — for Starship to fill.

Starship could be used for deploying SpaceX’s Starlink internet service, Musk said. The company hopes that will provide a major source of revenue, despite fears over the impact of placing thousands of satellites in orbit. A single Starship launch could carry about 400 Starlink satellites.

He said SpaceX was continuing to study using Starship as a speedy — likely expensive — way to travel around the world, New York to Tokyo in 30 minutes.

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“It’s basically an ICBM that lands,” Musk said.

“Nothing gets there faster than a ICBM. It’s just minus the nuclear bomb and add landing.”

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