SpaceX hosted a media event on the night of Thursday, February 10, 2022, at the aerospace company’s spaceflight facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
CEO Elon Musk spoke for over an hour, touting the space company’s progress while giving a much-anticipated update on the design, development, and testing of his Starship rocket system.
The system actually consists of two parts: a huge first-stage booster known as Super Heavy, and the upper-stage spacecraft called Starship.
SpaceX is developing Starship to transport people and cargo to the moon, Mars, and other deep-space destinations. During his speech, Musk also spoke on the future of spaceflight and civilization.
Musk took the stage in front of a shiny, fully stacked Starship vehicle standing 119 meters (390 feet) tall. That’s taller than any other rocket ever built! The previous record holder, NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket, stood 111 meters (363 feet) tall.
Starship stood next to an even taller “Mechazilla” launch tower, designed to support the rocket during fueling and launch operations. This structure will also catch the first-stage booster with huge mechanical arms as the Super Heavy slows down near the ground.
Starship’s upper stage is 50 meters (164 feet) tall and designed to carry payloads of up to 150 tons into orbit or be refilled there to fly to the Moon or Mars.
Both Super Heavy and Starship are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, a cost-saving breakthrough that Musk and SpaceX believe will revolutionize space travel and exploration. The company has already proven it possible with its smaller Falcon 9 rockets, which have been reused repeatedly.
Such incredibly high flight rates would bring per-mission costs down dramatically. “It may be as little as a few million dollars per flight — maybe even as low as a million dollars per flight,” Musk said. “These are crazy low numbers by space standards.”
Musk also mentioned how some design changes, like an updated rocket engine design, will help reduce costs.
The original Raptor engine produced 185 tons of thrust, but Raptor 2 will have at least 230 tons of thrust – and it will cost half as much to build. “It’s a spectacular piece of engineering,” Musk said. In fact, Starship’s thrust will be more than twice that of the iconic Saturn V.
Starship will play a key role in NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon for the first time in a half century. Musk also hopes Starship will one day take humans to Mars. Some even say Starship will transform spaceflight and the space industry in ways we can’t yet imagine.
Notably, Musk’s speech wasn’t all technical details. Musk reiterated that he wants to build a city on Mars but did not provide any updates in regard to who would live there or how it would be governed. However, Musk waxed poetical about why the colonization of Mars is important to humanity.
First, there is the life insurance rationale. Although the chance of a planet-wide calamity extinguishing our species is low, it is not zero. “To be frank, civilization is feeling a little bit fragile right now,” said Musk.
Then there is the inspiration factor. “Life can’t just be about solving problems,” he said. “There have to be things that inspire you.” People need to feel some excitement about the future, and Musk believes that the vision of humanity coming together to extend our civilization to a new planet is an inspirational opportunity.
Musk’s vision of settling Mars at one time seemed like pure science fiction. Now, his efforts in moving the reality of spaceflight forward have shown that we can be “making science fiction not fiction forever.”
Still, creating a self-sustaining city on Mars won’t be easy, he admitted. Echoing explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1913 recruitment ad for an Antarctic expedition, Musk said: “The sales pitch for going to Mars is it’s going to be cramped, dangerous and difficult. It’s going to be very hard work, and you might die.”
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Musk engaged one-on-one with his audience of employees, fans, and reporters. One question he was asked, was when he thought the Federal Aviation Administration might render a decision on the environmental suitability of the South Texas location for orbital Starship launches. Although SpaceX does not have “a ton of insight” into the FAA process, Musk said he believes approval could come as early as March 2022.
However, should the FAA require a more extensive environmental analysis of the Texas location, Musk said that SpaceX could pivot its spaceflight operations to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The company already has FAA approval to launch Starship from Launch Complex 39A, but it would take time to construct a launch tower and associated infrastructure there. The worst-case delay would be six to eight months, he said.
Musk predicted, “At this point, I feel highly confident we’ll get to orbit this year.”
Elon Musk founded SpaceX on March 14, 2002, with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars. SpaceX is the first private company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft; and the first private company to send astronauts up to the International Space Station. SpaceX is also building a network of low-Earth-orbit satellites, called Starlink, to provide global internet service.