SpaceX is developing its next-generation Starship rocket to one day launch dozens of people to space, but CEO Elon Musk emphasized that the rocket has many milestones to go before it can take passengers.
"We've got to first make the thing work; automatically deliver satellites and do hundreds of missions with satellites before we put people on board," Musk said, speaking Monday at the virtual "Humans to Mars" conference.
Starship represents the company's top priority, as Musk wants to build a fully reusable rocket system that can launch cargo or as many as 100 people at a time. While SpaceX's current Falcon fleet of rockets is partially reusable, as the company can land and reuse the rocket's boosters, Musk hopes Starship transforms space travel into something more akin to commercial air travel.
The rocket's enormous size would also make it capable of launching several times as much cargo at once — for comparison, while SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets can send as many as 60 Starlink satellites at a time, SpaceX says Starship will be able to launch 400 Starlink satellites at a time.
The company has rapidly built up its facility in Boca Chica, Texas, where it has now conducted short flight tests of early Starship prototypes. But the Starship development program has suffered several explosive setbacks in the past year. Musk recently shifted the company's focus to Starship, saying in June that progress on the rocket must accelerate "dramatically and immediately" – and three months later, Musk's urgency appears to be getting results.
"We're making good progress," Musk said. "The thing that really impedes progress on Starship is the production system ... A year ago there was nothing there and now we've got quite a lot of production capability. So we're rapidly making more and more ships."
When Musk unveiled the Starship prototype in September 2019, he was hopeful that SpaceX could get the rocket to orbit by March of this year – and even flying people in 2020. But his tone has shifted since then, as he warned Monday that the first Starship launches to orbit "might not work," saying that SpaceX is in "uncharted territory." He now expects Starship's first orbital flight test won't come until next year.
"Nobody has ever made a fully reusable, orbital rocket," Musk said.
He also said that SpaceX has not done much work yet on the design of the cabin or interior of Starship for passengers. Notably, Musk highlighted that SpaceX has experience making "a complex life support system that can deal with a wide range of environments," as the company's Crew Dragon capsule successfully transported a pair of NASA astronauts to-and-from the International Space Station on a mission this summer.
Work at the Boca Chica facility is continuing toward Starship's next flight test, with Musk saying the company will begin construction of the first Super Heavy booster prototype "this week." Super Heavy is the large bottom half of Starship rocket, which has most of the engines and is used during for the beginning of a launch.
SpaceX has continued to raise private funding for its programs, with the company most recently seeking nearly $2.1 billion in an equity round of investment. SpaceX's equity fundraising in the past two years totals about $3.75 billion, with its valuation reportedly climbing to $46 billion.
In the near term, SpaceX plans for Starship to fly missions to low Earth orbit and then to the Moon. But Mars remains Musk's long-term goal. The company will reach the red planet "given enough time," Musk said, but "the question is: How long it will it take us?"
"And getting to Mars, I think, is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is building a base, building a city on Mars that is self-sustaining," Musk said. "We're going to build a propellant plant, an initial Mars base – Mars Base Alpha – and then get it to the point where it's self-sustaining."
"I want to emphasize that this is a very hard and dangerous, difficult thing, not for the faint of heart," he added. "Good chance you'll die, it's going to be tough going, but it will be pretty glorious if it works out."
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