Elon Musk's SpaceX company plans to launch its new Starship rocket, the largest and most powerful in the world, tomorrow, Saturday, between 2:00 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. (Spanish peninsular time). It will be the second launch of the SpaceX mastodon after the inaugural flight ended catastrophically with the explosion of the rocket four minutes after takeoff on April 20. The schedule for the return of astronauts to the lunar surface in the coming years will depend on the success of tomorrow's mission.
It is the tallest and most powerful rocket in the world. It measures 120 meters high and 9 meters in diameter. By comparison, NASA's Saturn V that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, and which was until now the largest rocket in history, measured 111 meters high and 10 meters in diameter. The Ariane 5, the largest of the European rockets, is a pygmy next to it: 53 meters high and 5.4 meters in diameter.
SpaceX's Starship will be able to send loads of up to 150 tons to low Earth orbit, 25% more than the 120 tons that the Saturn V could put into orbit. The Ariane 5 remains at 21 tons.
Aside from being larger and more powerful, the Starship is designed to be reusable, which should lower launch costs when it enters service.
It has two main modules. The lower stage, called Super Heavy, is powered by 33 engines that give the rocket the thrust necessary for takeoff and approximately the first three minutes of the flight in the lower layers of the atmosphere. It is designed to return to the launch base after separating from the upper stage and land in a vertical position, as the first stages of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets currently do.
The upper stage, called Starship like the rocket assembly, is a spacecraft that can transport astronauts, satellites or any other cargo and is also designed to be recovered at the end of missions.
Starship's exterior appearance also sets it apart from other rockets and is destined to make it an iconic image of space exploration for decades to come. Its silver color is due to the fact that it is made of stainless steel, unlike white rockets built with carbon fiber. The black part of the upper stage is the heat shield that will protect the Starship from high temperatures as it re-enters the atmosphere when it returns to Earth.
Elon Musk has presented Starship as the rocket that will take the first humans to Mars. But before this happens, if it ever happens, the rocket has other uses assured.
For NASA, the Starship spacecraft is the vehicle that will carry the first American astronauts to return to the lunar surface since the Apollo program was canceled in 1972. The astronauts will leave Earth on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. NASA but, once they have reached the orbit of the Moon, they will go down to the surface in the SpaceX ship.
For the company, the Starship will facilitate the deployment of the next generation of Starlink satellites, larger and more massive than the current ones. The Starlink company, also created by Elon Musk and operated by SpaceX, has the goal of offering internet connectivity from any corner of the world.
In addition, having a rocket that launches more powerfully and at a lower cost than any other company will allow SpaceX to consolidate itself as a leader in the global satellite launch market.
During the first launch of the Starship on April 20, a series of serious failures occurred before the rocket exploded at an altitude of 29 kilometers. First, the structure of the launch base did not resist, so a large amount of materials were ejected and remained in a crater in the place where the rocket had been. Three of the Super Heavy module's 33 engines did not ignite as they should and two others shut down shortly after takeoff, affecting the rocket's trajectory.
The Starship failed to separate from the Super Heavy module as planned three minutes after takeoff and the two components began to tumble together. The rocket's self-destruct system, which should have been activated immediately, took a minute to cause the explosion that ended the mission.
Once the necessary changes have been made to the launch base and the rocket to correct the failures detected in the first mission, the second takeoff is scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday, at 2:00 p.m. (Spanish peninsular time). The launch window will be twenty minutes, which means that takeoff can occur at any time between 2:00 p.m. and 2:20 p.m. The Starship will depart from the Boca Chica base in south Texas, heading east toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The two stages of the rocket, which will not be recovered in this test flight, must separate 2 minutes and 41 seconds after takeoff. The Super Heavy module will fall into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico when seven minutes have passed since the start of the mission.
If the planned plan is fulfilled, the Starship spacecraft will continue traveling eastward and will almost completely circle the Earth in 90 minutes to end up falling into Pacific waters north of Hawaii.
NASA contributes $4 billion to the development of SpaceX's Starship rocket. For now, the space agency maintains the objective of taking a crew of astronauts to lunar orbit in November 2024 and another to the surface of the satellite in December 2025. For both missions, it will be necessary for NASA to have its SLS rocket ready, with which the astronauts will depart from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For the December 2025 mission, SpaceX will also need to have the Starship ship ready. To do this, it must first demonstrate that it can refill Starship's fuel tanks in Earth orbit from space service stations that SpaceX plans to launch in the future.
Even if tomorrow's launch is completed successfully, it is unlikely that NASA and SpaceX will be able to meet the planned schedule. If new serious problems are detected as occurred in the April 20 launch, it will be even more unlikely. What is at stake, as NASA director Bill Nelson has acknowledged to The Washington Post, is “the space race to reach the Moon before China; of course we have SpaceX” to achieve it.