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Five things we learned from Elon Musk's rollout of the SpaceX Starship prototype

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

A prototype of SpaceX's Starship Mars spaceship could reach orbit in less than six months and fly humans next year, Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said Saturday during an unveiling at the company's facility in south Texas.

Standing in front of the towering stainless steel prototype known as Starship Mk 1, Musk told an audience the Hawthorne company would be building versions of the spacecraft in rapid succession at two different SpaceX facilities -- one near Boca Chica Beach in Texas and one in Cocoa, Fla.

The goal is to build at least two per site before SpaceX starts work on the Super Heavy rocket booster that will power Starship to orbit. Both Starship and Super Heavy are intended to eventually replace SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and its newer Falcon Heavy rocket, which first launched last year.

Musk did not give an updated timeline for when Starship -- essentially a second-stage rocket and lander -- would go to Mars. SpaceX has said its "aspirational goal" is to send cargo missions to the Red Planet in 2022.

"It's going to be pretty epic to see this thing take off and come back," said Musk said of Starship.

Here are some other takeaways from Musk's presentation.

 

1. Starship Mk 1 could launch soon

Musk estimated that the prototype could be test-launched to an altitude of about 60,000 feet in one to two months. Musk, however, is known for overly optimistic timelines -- in 2016, SpaceX said it could send an uncrewed Dragon capsule to Mars as soon as 2018. That mission did not happen, and SpaceX's plans for Mars changed to use Starship, rather than Dragon capsules.

2. SpaceX is building Starships quickly

SpaceX's team at Boca Chica Beach built Starship Mk 1 in about four to five months, Musk said. That was after he changed the design from a carbon fiber exterior to stainless steel -- a design he said would be cheaper, heat-resistant and would result in a similarly strong, lightweight vehicle.

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