Musk: SpaceX Starship will launch hundreds of satellite missions before manned flight


SpaceX is developing the next-generation “Starship” rocket, which it hopes will one day send dozens of people into space, but CEO Musk stressed that the rocket has many milestones before it can carry people.

“We’re going to get the rockets working first; autonomously transporting satellites and using them for hundreds of missions before sending people into space,” Musk said Monday at the virtual “Humans on Mars” conference.

Starship represents a top priority for the company, as Musk wants to build a fully reusable rocket system that can launch cargo or carry 100 people at a time.

While the company could land and reuse the rocket’s boosters, making SpaceX’s current Falcon fleet partially reusable, Musk wants Starship to transform space travel into a model more akin to commercial air travel.

The rocket’s sheer size will also allow it to launch several times as much cargo at a time – for comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can send up to 60 Starlink satellites at a time, while SpaceX says Starship is capable of launching 400 Starlink satellites at a time satellite.

The company quickly established a factory in Texas and has already conducted short-term flight tests of an early Starship prototype.

But over the past year, early Starship development plans have suffered several explosive setbacks. But Musk has shifted the company’s focus to Starship, saying in June that progress on the rocket must “immediately accelerate significantly.”

Three months later, Musk’s sense of urgency appears to be paying off.

“We’re making good progress,” Musk said. “What’s really holding back Starship is the production system… A year ago there was nothing there, and now we’ve got quite a bit of production capacity. So we’re making more and more ships rapidly.”

When Musk unveiled the Starship prototype in September 2019, he hoped that SpaceX would be able to put the rocket into orbit by March this year, and even launch a crew in 2020.

But his tone has shifted since then, as he warned Monday that the first Starship launches to orbit “may not be successful,” saying SpaceX was in “uncharted territory.” He now doesn’t expect Starship’s first orbital flight test to arrive until next year.

“No one has ever built a fully reusable orbital rocket,” Musk said.

He also said that SpaceX has not done much work on the design of Starship’s cabin or interior passengers. Notably, Musk emphasized that SpaceX has experience building “complex life support systems capable of handling a variety of environments” and the company’s Crew Dragon capsule successfully carried a pair of NASA astronauts back and forth on a mission this summer International Space Station.

Work at the Texas factory is continuing toward the next flight test of Starship, and Musk said the company will begin building the first Super Heavy booster prototype “this week.” The super heavy rocket is the large lower half of the entire rocket, and it has most of the engines, which are used at the beginning of the launch.

SpaceX has continued to raise private funding for its projects, most recently seeking an equity investment of nearly $2.1 billion. According to reports, SpaceX’s total equity fundraising over the past two years is about $3.75 billion, and its valuation has climbed to $46 billion.

In the near future, SpaceX plans to fly Starship to low Earth orbit, and then to the moon. But Mars remains Musk’s long-term goal. “The company will get to the Red Planet “given enough time,” Musk said, but “the question is: how long will it take us?”

“And getting to Mars, I don’t think it’s the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is building a base on Mars, building a self-sufficient city,” Musk said. “We’re going to build a propellant factory, an initial Mars base — Mars Base Alpha — and then make it self-sufficient.”

“I want to stress that this is a very hard, dangerous, difficult thing, not for the faint of heart,” he added. “There’s a good chance you’ll die, it’ll be tough, but if it’s successful, it’ll be glorious.”