Meet the spacecraft that will take you to Mars, or to New York in twenty-nine minutes.
Words By Rob Barrie
Its second test might have ended in a giant fireball, but nothing is stopping SpaceX’s Starship programme. The American space company is now tantalisingly close to offering civilian space travel.
In 2016, Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer at SpaceX, heralded a new dawn for space travel. Humans so far have not set foot on a planet other than Earth, and it is this notion that occupies the very heart of Musk’s new ambitions. The South-African born entrepreneur, who in January became the world’s richest person, has suggested there are two options for humanity. The first is staying on Earth until the sun in our solar system burns. The second, as he outlined: “become a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species”. This latter path, he added, is the one “I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”
Currently, travelling beyond our solar system, let alone intergalactic travel, is far beyond our technological reach. But reaching our neighbouring planets, such as Mars, is a realistic target possibly within the next few years; certainly, by the close of this decade. A colony on Mars, for example, would be a gigantic step in humanity’s endeavour to travel amongst the stars. A dream that Elon Musk, and SpaceX, are working on realising.
In 2016 a new programme at SpaceX, aimed at achieving this dream, was born. What gradually emerged from the hangars from years of development was an elegant, silver spacecraft. Comparisons were even drawn to the creations from the boundless minds of science-fiction writers of the twentieth century. The final model will stand at one hundred and twenty metres tall, comprising an additional rocket segment, known as the Super Heavy, and the aforementioned spacecraft proper. The combined system was originally called “Starhopper”, but the name was later changed to what is known as today: “Starship”. Super Heavy will burn methalox fuel to power its twenty-eight Raptor engines (a SpaceX creation too) to help propel Starship, which would then detach, into the darkness of space. And with just over seven million kilograms of thrust from the engines, the resistance offered by Earth’s gravity will feel like no more than a mild pull.
First, let’s revisit SpaceX’s Falcon 9, a rocket on a parallel space programme. SpaceX can now, almost with one hundred percent efficacy, land the engine segment from this rocket on a drone ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Landing completely autonomously on what is no more than half the size of a football pitch is an astounding feat of engineering. Not only is it a marvellous spectacle to watch, but retrieving and reusing the rocket saves SpaceX around six million dollars with every launch.
Whilst components of this autonomous landing from Falcon 9 have been carried over to Starship, the exact manoeuvres the new spacecraft intends to pull off, which are even more breath-taking, disobey all sense of reality. Indeed, it simply defies the laws of physics.
Upon attaining a set altitude, Starship will rotate from a vertical to a horizontal position. Known as a “belly-flop”, Starship utilises precise bursts from its engines to change to a ‘lying down’ position. It then descends horizontally, similar to a plane on final approach to an airport. Then, once at a low enough altitude, it will ignite a secondary burn, flip itself to a vertical position and land on terra firma, upright, via stabilising legs.
When one considers that parts of the Saturn rockets that propelled astronauts to the moon in the twentieth century were either discarded in space as debris or plummeted into the ocean, what SpaceX is creating with Starship almost beggar’s belief. There is no debris. Indeed, apart from the fuel that is burned, there is no waste. Thus, here we have a completely reusable rocket with quick turnaround times. It is hoped that this will place launching on an hourly scale, rather than weekly. The implications for interplanetary space travel are obvious. Civilians could be transported on Starship to a colony on another planet, the vehicle will be refuelled upon arriving, and return to Earth to collect more passengers for an identical trip.
There are, however, interesting hints of Starship’s employment closer to home. Elon Musk has suggested that Starship could act as a vessel for travel within Earth too. For a conventional aeroplane, the flight time from New York to Shanghai is nearly fifteen hours. In a Starship, which will be able to hold around one hundred passengers, it would take just thirty-nine minutes. London to New York would take a scarcely believable twenty-nine minutes. Entering low-orbit, returning to Earth’s lower atmospheres and conducting its trademark vertical landing, it would be ready for reuse in hours, carrying a further set of passengers back to its place of origin on a return journey, much like today’s aeroplanes.
Serious entertainment of such revolutionary possibilities is perhaps best kept in the future. Indeed, before the exact logistics of the Starship programme are finalised, SpaceX needs to first perfect the landing of the spacecraft. Five years after the announcement of the programme, the first prototypes are currently being tested from the Boca Chica launch sites in Texas. The launch site itself was built primarily for this interplanetary ambition, and SpaceX even bought an entire neighbouring town to continue expansion of the launch centre. Unfortunately, the two high-altitude tests conducted so far have both ended in explosions. The final flip to vertical position and subsequent self-landing has proved difficult.
However, the bigger picture must be kept firmly in view. The relatively short time it took to advance the programme from two- dimensional blueprints into real, tangible spacecraft was a feat in itself, and this achievement is made even more remarkable when one considers that SpaceX was also developing its Starlink missions (providing remote areas with internet via satellites) and also advancing its Falcon9 missions (sending humans to the International Space Station) at the same time. SpaceX engineers have even called the two tests so far, despite their fiery ending, largely successful. Therefore, there are reasons to be hopeful that we shall see a successful landing of a Starship vehicle soon.
As Earth becomes ever-more overcrowded, more eyes turn to the stars of the night sky as possible new homes. Planets within our solar system may provide not just an alleviation, but a solution. Whether the majority of the public agrees with such a proposal remains to be seen. But it is clear that this programme is gathering huge public interest. The tests alone attracted a huge global following. Hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned in to the live-streams of each test, with viewing figures rivalling those of the widely-broadcast Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station. The days of exclusive space travel for astronauts are fading. Space, it seems, can now be for anyone. Perhaps it is this thought that has captured the minds of so many.
Though still in its youthful days of testing, the evolution of the Starship programme has made travelling to neighbouring planets not a question of if, but when. Indeed, thanks to Starship, it might not be a fully qualified astronaut stepping onto the red Martian soil, but you.