Starship: Elon Musk’s giant rocket nears its maiden flight
Posted January 13, 2023, 3:44 p.m
It sits above the fog that forms over the lagoon in Boca Chica, Texas. Sitting at a height of 70 meters, the “Starship” seems impatient to tear itself away from this strip of land, located a few kilometers from the Mexican border.
SpaceX’s spacecraft first assembled its Super Heavy first stage in early 2023. The entire system is 120 meters above the ground, which is higher than the largest rockets launched by SpaceX in the seven decades of manned space exploration. And according to Elon Musk, his first orbital flight is just around the corner.
“End of February or end of March”
This Thursday, the world’s richest man posted a picture of the rocket on Twitter, accompanied by a sobering formula: “Try to launch Starship soon.” A few days ago, he seemed a little more specific, saying that SpaceX had a launch window of “end of February” but that a “March attempt is more likely.” It is enough to excite space watchers who have been waiting for the launch of the launcher, which is considered revolutionary, for several years.
Starship is a concentrate of innovation: a completely reusable system is designed to launch both human deep space – to the Moon and Mars – and satellites or other telescopes into orbit. The first stage’s 29 Raptor engines, which use a mixture of oxygen and liquid methane, should develop about 7,600 tons of lift, more than twice that of the Saturn V, the rocket of the Apollo moon missions.
In cargo configuration, the top of the craft offers 1,100 m3 of space, which is greater than that offered by an American space shuttle of its time. The payload capacity in low orbit is more than 100 tons, which is five times that of the Ariane 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.
The starship was scheduled to fly in the summer of 2022
The concept is so radical and innovative that it has been derided by a section of the scientific community who see it as a science fiction device rather than the rocket of the future that Musk envisions. Spectacular and repeated crashes of the craft during the first tests in the Earth’s atmosphere in the spring of 2021 reinforced these ironies. Not enough to chill NASA, SpaceX’s first backer, which chose the starship as the future lunar lander for its Artemis missions.
All that remains is to fly it into orbit for good. And Elon Musk’s claims of an imminent takeoff should be taken with caution. In February 2022, the multibillionaire already announced that the system would be ready “in a few months”. In June, he announced that Starship and Super Heavy would begin flying in July and plan to fly monthly starting in August. After that, he became more reserved.
The starship will be ready to fly next month. I was in the high bay and reviewed the progress last night.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 14, 2022
If assembling the system is indeed a big step, the new deadline still seems too optimistic. Captive tests on the ship and its first stage are still to be conducted. And SpaceX has yet to receive a definitive breakthrough from the FAA, the US Air Force Constable, who is studying the environmental impact of the company’s operations in the Boca Chica lagoon, which is protected as a biodiversity refuge.
The Artemis program is being discontinued
The countdown is getting urgent. First for SpaceX, which relies on Starship and its large payload capacity to quickly complete the launch of Starlink’s low-orbit telecommunications constellation. So, for NASA, which urgently needs to show, choosing Elon Musk’s sole firm to put astronauts on the moon was a bold bet – much criticized in the US – not a political suicide – but a financial one.
Seeing an American on the surface of the star in 2025, according to the official calendar, or 2026, according to unofficial estimates, already seems too ambitious: even if the starship flies in the coming months, it will take time. green light for the transportation of human life.
In particular, it will have to demonstrate the ability to land and land on the moon, the biggest challenge of the lunar conquest during the Apollo era. And again, it will be necessary to develop techniques to rendezvous with other Starships in Earth orbit, to refuel, and then to rendezvous with the Orion capsule in lunar orbit. It is enough to break a cold sweat on the decision-makers of the American space agency.