CAMERON COUNTY, Texas — Standing under the towering profile of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket, CEO Elon Musk on Thursday gave his pitch for building a vehicle that he believes represents the “holy grail” of space travel.
“This is really some wild stuff here,” Musk said, speaking to a crowd of employees, guests and media. “In fact, hard to believe it’s real — except you, know, it’s right there.”
The past year saw a historic breakthrough in private human spaceflight for multiple companies, including SpaceX, but the perception of billionaires joyriding in rockets drew widespread public derision. Musk opened his presentation with a defense on the value of space transportation, calling it necessary for “establishing security for life itself and having an exciting future and inspiring kids about the future.”
“One of the rebuttals I will sometimes hear is … what about all the problems on Earth?” Musk said.
“I completely agree that the vast majority of resources should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth,” Musk continued. He said “more than 99% of our resources” should be focused on terrestrial challenges but “maybe half a percent” should be space-focused.
Starship is the nearly 400-foot tall rocket that SpaceX has been developing, with the goal of creating a vehicle that can carry cargo and groups of people beyond Earth.
Starship prototype 20 stacked on top of Super Heavy booster 4 at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Musk presented the rocket as crucial to establishing a human presence on other planetary bodies, such as the moon and Mars. Further advocating against the idea that space travel is frivolous, Musk declared that traveling to Mars is “far from being some sort of escape hatch,” as “it will be extremely difficult and dangerous and tough.”
Public support for the development of Starship may seem unnecessary, yet it is crucial to the future Musk envisions for SpaceX. While the private venture raises billions from investors, SpaceX has won several taxpayer-funded contracts for Starship and the company needs approval from federal regulators to launch in earnest from its facility on the southernmost part of Texas’ Gulf Coast.
“Objectively, the cost efficiency of SpaceX is the best in history, I think, for any rocket development,” Musk said. “We are talking about a rocket that’s more than twice the mass and thrust of a Saturn V,” the rocket that launched the Apollo moon missions, “and is also designed to be fully reusable … for a development cost that is, I don’t know, between 5[%] and 10% of the Saturn V.”
“From an environmental standpoint,” Musk added, “obviously it is also much better” to build a “fully reusable” vehicle, since rockets are traditionally discarded after each launch.
‘Less than $10 million’ per launch
SpaceX has steadily brought down the cost of its current fleet of Falcon 9 rockets to below $30 million per launch, by landing the most expensive part of the rocket and reusing it multiple times. But, even though Starship is many times larger and expected to have a multibillion-dollar development cost, Musk says the next-generation rocket will be far less expensive per launch.
“I’m highly confident it would be less than $10 million,” Musk said.
The key to that cost efficiency is Starship’s projected capability in the amount of mass to orbit each launch can carry, paired with SpaceX’s goal of fully reusing each rocket and booster in a way Musk compares to commercial air travel.
SpaceX has completed multiple high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes, but its next major step is to reach space. While that milestone was expected to be reached last year, development progress has been delayed and the orbital flight test is also pending regulatory approval. SpaceX needs a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, with the regulator expected to complete a key environmental assessment in a month or so.
“Might be a few bumps along the road but … I feel at this point highly confident that we’ll get to orbit this year,” Musk said.
A side-by-side of the company’s first and second generation Raptor engines, which power the Starship rocket.
The top technical hurdle for Starship currently is the development of its second generation of Raptor engines, which power the rocket and its booster. Each Starship requires seven Raptor engines, and each Super Heavy booster will need 33 engines.
A crisis in Raptor engine development late last year led to the departure of a SpaceX executive. Musk said Thursday that Raptor is the “problem I’m spending the most time personally” working on, alongside development of “full self-driving” at Tesla.
The Raptor 2 engines represent “an almost complete redesign” compared with the first generation, Musk said, but are “significantly simplified” and more powerful. Raptor 2 also “cost about half as much” to build, he said, and production is ramping up. The company is “close to achieving” a production rate of a Raptor 2 engine per day, he said.
While SpaceX will need to develop Starship’s interior and life support systems, with contracts to deliver both NASA astronauts and private passengers to the moon in the next few years, Musk said the company is “not focusing a lot” on the issue currently. He pointed to SpaceX’s experience building life support systems for its Dragon spacecraft, which have flown 18 people safely to low Earth orbit to date.
“That will be important down the road, but our focus right now is just getting to orbit,” Musk said.
The future of Starship in Texas
SpaceX rolls out Super Heavy Booster 4 in preparation for the company’s first orbital Starship launch.
The SpaceX CEO also laid out why the company chose this area in Texas for Starship manufacturing and launches, saying the facility, nicknamed “Starbase,” required “a confluence of factors.”
Musk emphasized that the location represents a clear path to orbit, given the need to launch eastward to “have help from Earth’s rotation.” It also features a “good clear area” that is sparsely populated.
“That doesn’t actually leave a lot of options. It’s basically here and Cape Canaveral” in Florida, Musk said.
SpaceX has resumed construction on a Starship launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but Musk said the R&D work on the rocket meant the company “didn’t want to disrupt” the current launch operations in Florida. Additionally, Musk said he thinks “Texas has the right amount of rules and regulations” for the experimental project.
The company’s rapid growth in Cameron County has been welcomed by some locals for creating jobs and attracting tourists but criticized by others for displacing a beachfront community and endangering the wildlife refuge around Starbase. In the early development of Starship, several prototypes failed and were destroyed during testing.
Starship prototype rocket SN9 explodes on impact after a high-altitude test flight on Feb. 2, 2021.
The environmental concerns are front and center for Starship’s future in Texas, but Musk said he is “optimistic” that SpaceX will receive approval to move forward.
“We don’t have a ton of insight into where things stand with the FAA. We have gotten sort of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March,” Musk said.
“I think this is not something that will be harmful to the environment,” he added.
But SpaceX is considering its path forward if a more in-depth environmental assessment is required, as Musk said it would “set us back for quite some time” — with a move to Florida the top alternative.
“Worst-case scenario is that we would … be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch [Starship] from there,” Musk said.
In that scenario, Musk said, SpaceX would continue “advanced R&D” work in Texas, such as “trying out new design and new versions of the rocket,” but it would use Cape Canaveral as the main base of operations for Starship.