Eleven years ago, SpaceX made history with the successful launch of its first rocket into orbit. The company has come a long way since then and so has a budding new industry: travel into space for profit and fun.
Starship, SpaceX’s latest venture, is a giant, bullet-shaped rocket covered with stainless steel. While it looks like something off the cover of a science fiction magazine, this is the real deal.
Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, proudly calls this SpaceX’s new-generation rocket. If his plans materialize, in the relatively near future Starship will ferry astronauts to the Moon, subsequently to Mars, and then bring them back home again.
“The critical breakthrough that’s needed for us to become a spacefaring civilization is to make space travel like air travel,” Musk said. “A rapidly reusable rocket is basically the holy grail of space.”
Starship is just part of the rocket that will boost humans into space. In its completed form, it will be placed on top of a SpaceX Super Heavy rocket booster, which will be outfitted with 37 Raptor engines. The Raptor produces twice the thrust of the engines used on the company’s Falcon 9 rockets and is among the most powerful rocket engines ever made. The orbital version of Starship will be outfitted with six Raptor engines, but the Mark 1, the prototype on display, will do its first suborbital flight with just three.
Musk said that the first flight of the Mark 1 Starship is set to be launched in only “one to two months.” It will lift off from a site in Texas on a suborbital trajectory that will reach a maximum altitude of 12 miles. The first flight to orbit the Earth could follow six months later.
Even more amazing is that an object as humongous as Starship could actually lift off from the ground and achieve enough speed to travel into space. Starship stands over 160 feet tall, and when loaded with fuel will weigh about 1,400 tons. When the vehicle is mounted on a fueled Super Heavy booster with a full payload it will weigh about 10 million pounds.
Starship will replace NASA’s Saturn V rocket, the one that carried Apollo astronauts to the Moon, as the largest and most powerful rocket ever made. In fact, Musk said it will have twice the thrust of the Saturn V.
A New Approach
Like SpaceX’s other rockets, it will be capable of landing on Earth for reuse, but the manner in which it returns to Earth will be very different. Unlike the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket boosters, which return at a nearly 90-degree angle, Starship “will essentially belly flop through the atmosphere and right itself just before landing,” according to Wired.
“This is quite a new approach to controlling a rocket,” Musk said. “It’s much more akin to a skydiver and it will look totally nuts to see that thing land.”
During the summer, SpaceX launched two test vehicles and also filed the necessary documents with government agencies that would allow Starship to be launched. The craft may be ready to carry a crew into space next year.
Not The Only Game In Town
Many people would love to fly into space, and some are actively planning to do so. In fact, SpaceX has already sold seats for a trip around the Moon. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, purchased several of those and will take several artists along with him for the ride. That flight could occur as soon as 2023, assuming that progress on the technology continues on schedule.
However, SpaceX is not the only player in town. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been preparing for the new Space Age and now, after 15 years, the company’s goal of making space tourism a reality is finally within sight. The company has flown to the edge of space twice and says its first paying customers could reach space next year.
Another space venture, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos almost 20 years ago, hopes to conduct its first test flight with people this year. And NASA recently announced that it too would fly private citizens to the International Space Station on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.
Of course, these trips come with a high price tag, both for the companies sponsoring them and the passengers planning for the out-of-this-world trips. The cost of developing the rockets and related equipment reach well into the tens of billions of dollars. NASA said the cost of one night on the International Space Station would be $35,000.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has said it may raise the price of its tickets, which today cost $250,000, and that it expects high demand from the wealthy. The company projects flying 66 paying customers into space in 2020, more than 700 in 2021, and nearly 1,000 the following year. By 2023, when it expects to fly 1,562 paying passengers on 270 flights, it hopes to earn nearly $600 million in annual revenue.
Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic announced it would go public by merging with a New York investment firm, a move that Branson said would “open space to more investors and, in doing so, open space to thousands of new astronauts.” Already, 600 people have signed up for what Virgin Galactic describes as a transformative experience of seeing Earth from space, what astronauts call the “overview effect.”
These travelers are looking forward to the excitement of flying into space. For the rest of us, commuting to Manhattan is enough of an adventure.