Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, presented an update on the company’s huge Starship rocket program Thursday night in South Texas.
The update was the first detailed presentation on the Starship program since September 2019. Much has changed since then, with five test flights of full-scale Starship prototypes in the books.
The first four Starship atmospheric test flights all ended in explosions, before the fifth test resulted in a successful landing last May. SpaceX’s attention in recent months has switched to building out the huge Starship launch pad tower at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Overnight Wednesday into Thursday, SpaceX teams stacked a Starship test vehicle on top of a Super Heavy rocket, forming a nearly 400-foot-tall (122-meter) backdrop for Musk’s presentation Thursday night.
The privately-funded rocket will be the most powerful to ever fly, with 29 methane-fueled Raptor engines producing some 12 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. It’s also designed to be fully reusable, with the Super Heavy booster and Starship — essentially part upper stage and part in-space transporter — capable of returning to Earth and flying again.
Since Musk’s last Starship presentation two-and-a-half years ago, SpaceX has also won a contract with NASA to develop the Starship into a human-rated lander for the agency’s Artemis moon missions. A moon derivative of the Starship, assisted by Starship refueling tankers, will be utilized for a lunar landing with astronauts, an event NASA says could happen no earlier than 2025.
NASA, meanwhile, is in the final stages of readying its government-owned heavy-lifter called the Space Launch System at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s scheduled to launch for the first time this spring with an Orion crew capsule on an unpiloted Artemis test flight to lunar orbit and back to Earth.