Crewed flights possible on Starship “next year”

The SpaceX Starship prototype, dubbed “Mark 1”, was at the forefront during a major press event at Boca Chica Island, Texas, 29 Sep 2019 0030 UT. The stainless steel vessel, polished to a mirror sheen and welded in concentric circles to a Buck Rodgers-esque apex, barely budged in the face of stiff winds on the sand spit, even as Grasshopper strained at its tiedowns just behind it.

Musk commented on the past 11 years in orbit for SpaceX, opening with a recap of key launches, and providing details of a vessel that will double the scale of the entire field of spaceflight the moment it reaches orbit. When it flies to orbit in 2020, Starship will clock in at 120 tons dry with 150 tons of payload, accelerated by a colossal first stage booster twice the power of the Saturn V.

Despite the sizzling details and aspirations for Starship and its booster, Musk’s details were notably vague on crew modules and life support systems. With the dearMoon flight date of 2023 looming, Musk offered thanks for Yusaku Maesawa’s investment and a bit of spontaneous speculation.


The main event featured the gleaming Starship standing near the stage of the late-evening, outdoor press conference. The Mark 1 is a test platform with three sea-level Raptor engines. This vehicle will be able to make suborbital flights, the next being a flight to 20km altitude within 2 months’ time.

Later models that make the leap to orbit, with an extra three Raptor engines, with their expansive vacuum bells filling the remaining area at the base of the vessel. While these will provide the most efficient thrust in outer space, they will be stationary. Motion control can still be performed by the three gimballed sea-level Raptors, or by hot gas thrusters, essentially mini-rocket motors, in the RCS packs.

For those who weren’t already up to speed on his Carnegie-like axe to millions of dollars worth of carbon fibre production equipment, Musk also resumed his enthusiastic advocacy of the thermal properties of 301 stainless steel. The “glass vermicelli” heat shield that is hex tiled onto the belly of Starship is light and thin with the present design. A switch to something other than steel would require a much thicker, heavier heat shield, so much so that it just isn’t worth it.

Though the overall mass was first estimated at 85 tons (and this dated figure still made it into the presentation slides), the final mass for Starship is actually about 120 tons. Iteration may cut that to 110, or in a possible edge case, 99. A Starship can launch with up to 150 tons of payload, though it will need upgrades to land with the same amount. At first, it will only be able to land with 50 tons in the holds.

Starships will be capable of on-orbit fuel transfer, allowing the unspent fuel from earlier missions to top up long-distance voyages. Musk claimed that it was easier to dock two Starships rear-to-rear for fuelling than it is to dock a crew capsule at the International Space Station, something SpaceX has already done.

In fact, a single crewed Starship flight would be in at least one sense, as big as all previous achievements in spaceflight. Each Starship’s thousand cubic meters of pressurized habitation space is about the the same as what exists in the entire International Space Station. And Musk is not talking about building just a handful of Starships in some sort of modern take on the Space Shuttle program, but a fleet of 20 or more providing useful, even excess capacity, to reduce the hurdles to access space.


The first stage for any orbital flight of Starship will require the largest rocket ever built, with up to double the thrust of the Saturn V. The Starship’s Super Heavy booster, which has gone by many names over the course of its development, is a reusable first-stage rocket of immense size, made from the same stainless steel as Starship, its smooth cylindrical shape punctuated only by its landing gear and diamond-shaped grid fins, and outputting 7500 tons-force of thrust.

The Starship Booster will have a variable engine loadout centred around a central core of seven gimballed Raptor engines. The thirty remaining engine mounts are stationary: four under each of six fin-legs, and an additional six mount points in the remaining space between the exterior and the central core. Though it supports a maximum count of 37, Musk suggested that early orbital tests of Starship Booster might use as few as 31 Raptors. In service, the exact number of engines could be customized to the launch need.


The Starship program will feature two spaceports – Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral. Both facilities will have full-plant construction capacity and will compete in a race to the first interplanetary crewed mission. As such, Musk’s onetime suggestion that Boca Chica “could” be the site of that mission remains a distinct possibility, though equally shared with Cape Canaveral. Ultimately it will be decided not by neither fiat nor chance, but rather, a fair scrimmage in an engineering competition.

The race to Mars will require leaps in production capacity, and SpaceX is scaling to meet the demand. Presently capable of turning out a new Raptor engine in just over a week, Musk’s goal is to cut that in short order to one every three days, then one a day as Starship nears normal operations. 100 Raptor engines will be needed just to get Starship and Starship Booster through orbital testing.


With a first orbit set for as soon as March 2020, Musk also suggested that crew could fly on Starship “next year”, not long after the first flight, because the reusability of the system allows its reliability to be quickly demonstrated. Such a feat would put SpaceX, presently just a couple months ahead of other space companies on commercial spaceflight, in a breakaway lead far ahead of every state and private spaceflight program.

It’s a pace that just might be plausible, given that, when the design was finally ready, the Starship Mark 1 was built in less than 5 months. Further models are scheduled to be built at an accelerated pace. Along the way, they’ll incorporate improvements – for example, the first two Starships were built like grain bins out of rectangular plates of steel. From Mark 3, steel coils will be unspooled to the right diameter and welded along just three edges, reducing complexity.

In the quest to accelerate development, building Starship outdoors proved to be the winning move, another of the advantages steel construction has over costlier materials. There are still plans to build indoor production facilities; at Boca Chica specifically, SpaceX has tendered an offer to buy out the entire village, which would provide development room as well as reduce the logistical problems of moving residents to safety during launches.


Musk reiterated the potential of Starship to completely outscale the existing launch services market. Musk tossed some back-of-the-napkin numbers, a fleet of 10-20 Starships orbiting 1.5 to 3 gigagrams per year, dwarfing the existing space industry by a factor of 1000 or more. All of that capacity and more would be needed for a serious effort to settle the Moon and Mars.

Those optimistic estimates, rely on pretty fast turnaround times – Musk envisions a booster capable of being flown 20 times a day – that’s more turnarounds than most regional jets! A particular Starship, on the other hand, might fly as many as 4 times per day, with returns to Earth more practically limited by orbital precession and the number of active spaceports.


Elon Musk presents details on Starship at Boca Chica spaceport, 29 Sep 2019 0127 UT

All of this detail remains for the most part, breathless reporting of Elon Musk’s claims about what the Starship program will look like. It’s a big deal. It’s also a lot of things, all at once, that have never been done before.

No one has ever made a methane rocket this big.

No one has ever taken four humans around the Moon.

No one has ever taken humans to Mars.

SpaceX can easily be counted among the organizations in the world that can believably take on these challenges. It has shown a steady and strenuous pace of increased capabilities, but from time to time, it has needed the occasional pause to regroup. Still, for now, Starship appears to be a well-managed program with sophisticated engineers hitting technical milestones at rates not seen in the space industry since the 1960s.

First Emirati, Swedish Woman in Space in busy week


20 Sep: Josh Nelson (University of Minnesota Twin Cities) featured by Minnesota Space Grant

23 Sep: Sam Jaeger (University of Wisconsin Madison) featured by Wisconsin Space Grant

24 Sep: Dr. Keith Stein (Bethel University) featured by Minnesota Space Grant

24 Sep: Minnesota Space Grant commences 2020 High Power Rocket competition with conference call
A rain day has been specifically declared; the 2019 competition was rained out.


CZ-3B launch from Xichang with two Beidou navigation satellites, 22 Sep 2019 2110 UT (Credit: Weibo via @LaunchStuff)

22 Sep 2019 2110 UT Xichang CZ-3B Beidou
Two navigation satellites

24 Sep 2019 1605 UT Tanegashima H-2B Kounotori 8
Cargo mission to the International Space Station

CZ-2D launch from Jiuquan, 25 Sep 2019 0054 UT, with Yunhai-1-02 ionosphere experiment (Credit: Weibo via Rocket Rundown on YouTube)

25 Sep 2019 0054 UT Jiuquan CZ2D Yunhai-1-02

Soyuz MS-15 launches from Baikonur, 25 Sep 2019 1357 UT (Credit: Roscosmos)

25 Sep 2019 1357 UT Soyuz-FG Soyuz MS-15
Crew: Jessica Meir of NASA (American, Swedish) Hazza Al Mansouri of the MBRSC (Emirati), Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos (Russian)
Spaceflight firsts: First Emirati in space, first Swedish woman in space
Spaceflight lasts: Final flight of Soyuz-FG rocket

Soyuz-2.1b launch from Plesetsk 26 Sep 2019 0746 UT with EKS-3 military satellite. (Credit: ROSCOSMOS / VKS via YouTube SciNews)

26 Sep 2019 0746 UT Plesetsk Soyuz-2.1b EKS-3
EKS-3 is part of the Russian military’s missile launch detection system. It uses a Molniya orbit.


21 Sep 2019: Sigmund Jähn, first German in space, dead at 82

21 Sep 2019: NASA, Australian Space Agency sign cooperation agreement

23 Sep 2019: Six Orion capsules to be built for 4.6+ G$

24 Sep 2019: Redstone Arsenal space library to close

24 Sep 2019: Virgin Orbit readies LauncherOne at Mojave Spaceport for mid-fall launch

25 Sep 2019: Bridenstein presents Artemis and Lunar Gateway details to Japanese Diet

25 Sep 2019: ESA, CSA simulate lunar mission with controllers in Darmstadt, rover in Montréal

26 Sep 2019: Hype intensifies for Saturday SpaceX Starship Presser

26 Sep 2019: ESA to allow commercial access to ISS Kubik bioscience facility

26 Sep 2019: AIAC hosts Canadian election town hall on aerospace policy in Montréal

Big day for Japan in space

H2B launches from Tanegashima with the Kounotori 8 HTV, 24 Sep 2019 (JAXA)

Following checkouts and renewed focus on pad safety, Kounotori 8 launched from Tanegashima at 24 Sep 2019 1605 UT; the cargo module will arrive at the ISS on Saturday.

Bridenstein speaks to members of the Diet, 24 Sep 2019 1900 UT.

Just hours after the launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke to members of the Diet to encourage support for the Lunar Gateway space station project, with special emphasis on Japan’s proven ability to contribute to space exploration through today’s cargo launch as well as the ISS Kibo module and the Hayabusa 2 asteroid probe.

Bridenstein also touted the “open architecture” of the Lunar Gateway, Gateway specifications for docking, life support, avionics, environmental control, data, and communications will be published online, allowing applications to be developed for the gateway or the lunar surface.

Pad fire keeps Konotori 8 earthbound

JAXA’s Konotori 8 cargo mission to the International Space Station was scheduled for departure today, though that was postponed. At about 1205 UT 10 Sep 2019, there was an unexpected fire underneath the launch deck at Tanegashima, near two of the H-IIB rocket’s four solid rocket boosters. Response efforts continued over the following three hours.

The fire did not appear to contact the rocket, though water used to suppress the fire did hit the rocket and SRBs, a problem because, though the response effort made the launchpad safe and saved the cargo capsule, the rocket may still be damaged by either the pad fire or the unexpected mechanical stress and corrosion from the fire-fighting water.

An investigation is now underway to determine the state of the H-IIB vehicle. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced that the launch will not take place earlier than 13 Sep 2019; the possibility of being delayed more than a month has not been ruled out.

Rockot and ExPace fly, Vega fault report delivered this week

Rockot launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 30 Aug 2019 1400 UT (Credit: Sputnik News)


30 Aug 2019 1400 UT: Plesetsk Rockot, Geo-IK-2
30 Aug 2019 2331 UT: Jiuquan KZ-11, KX-09 and XX-1 experiments

A Rockot flight from Plesetsk carried the Geo-IK-2 Russian military geodata satellite to orbit, 30 Aug 2019 1400 UT. The brand-new KZ-11 rocket was lofted by ExPace from Jiuquan later the same day, at 2331 UT. The rocket carried two experimental satellites.

Vega failure announcement

ESA has announced the results of its independent investigation of the failure of arianespace Vega flight VV15, which appeared to fail just after first stage burnout. The report indicates that the second stage did in fact ignite, and looked good for just under 14 seconds, until a thermo-structural failure in the forward dome of the Z23 second stage motor caused catastrophic failure of the launcher.

A common type of thermo-structural failure in solid rocket motors is the presence of small small grain defects, such as voids or cracks, that can cause localized pockets of fuel to burn through too early. Because the fuel also acts as an ablative shield for the exterior skin of the rocket, burning through the fuel too soon is as bad or worse than using a blowtorch to cut the surrounding structure of the rocket.

A thermo-structural failure in a solid rocket motor was famously the source of the fatal launch failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
The fault is common in hobby rocketry, and is eliminated mainly by procedure and quality control in commercial space activities.

ExPace’s KZ-11 launches at Jiuquan, 30 Aug 2019 2331 UT (Credit: WeChat)

Further News

31 Aug 2019: New space launch regulations take effect in Australia

2 Sep 2019: Aeolus satellite moves to avoid OneWeb satellite