If you grew up in the era of NASA’s space shuttle, you probably developed a few ideas about what “normal” looks like in space, especially when it comes to waste. Even the oft-touted re-usability of the shuttle itself came at the expense of detachable rocket boosters and one massive fuel tank.
Rockets were no different. The Apollo mission’s massive Saturn V, the most powerful rocket mankind has ever produced, didn’t really make the trip to the moon; it’s comparably tiny payload did. The rest of the sky-scraper sized rocket was sacrificed in the effort. Today, SpaceX has already revolutionized re-usability for space-faring vessels by building its first stage boosters to land themselves, but overall, the model hasn’t changed. In order to get where you’re going, you’ve got to lose a whole lot of the rocket along the way, but that may be changing.
Starship test vehicle under assembly will look similar to this illustration when finished. Operational Starships would obv have windows, etc. pic.twitter.com/D8AJ01mjyR
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 5, 2019
Of course, this illustration represents what is to be a “test hopper,” not a full-fledged spacecraft. The vessel would be used as a technology test bed and demonstrator, making short flights to about 16,400 feet in altitude before returning to earth for another go. These tests are intended to inform the overall design of the vessel that Musk & Company once called “BFR,” but have since transitioned to “Starship.”
The full scale version of the ship is expected to stand 18 stories tall, and like the rocket designs we’re accustomed to, be ferried into orbit via a massive rocket dubbed SpaceX’s “Super Heavy.” However, once free of Earth’s jealous grip, SpaceX’s Starship will bare a striking resemblance to the ships depicted in the science fiction movies of the 1950s, complete with vertical landings that once seemed too unrealistic for anything but the silver screen.
Of course, the most notable difference between Musk’s Mars ferry and those depicted in ’50s sci-fi is the scale. Films of that era tended to depict small crews of just four or so passengers riding in their self-contained rocket ships, but Musk anticipates as many as a hundred passengers on each of his Martian flights.
SpaceX’s Starship will eventually become the company’s primary platform, according to statements made by senior officials, as it will eventually become capable of absorbing all of the company’s orbital and deeper space operations thanks to its massive size, payload capacity, and the boost provided by the Super Heavy rocket first stage — which Musk contends will be the most powerful rocket platform ever built. Once the Starship has left Earth, however, SpaceX believes it will be able to take off for distant worlds like the moon and Mars without the need for a booster.
SpaceX had intended to begin testing its crewed Dragon capsule this month, which is not slated to be a part of the “Starship” project but remains an integral stepping stone for the endeavor. However, the ongoing partial government shutdown has furloughed nearly 90% of NASA’s staff, postponing the Dragon’s test flight and pushing SpaceX’s first manned flights back even further.
Feature image courtesy of SpaceX/WikiMedia Commons