Tomorrow afternoon it must happen: the baptism of fire for the largest rocket ever built. Starship is SpaceX’s new showpiece, which should take people to the moon and Mars in a few years. With this test flight, Elon Musk’s company is happy if the colossus does not explode immediately. But even if things go wrong, experts say the ship could revolutionize space travel.
Ronald Klompe, aerospace expert and SpaceX follower from the very beginning, has been looking forward to this flight for years. “What makes Starship so special is that this rocket will be completely reusable. The Artemis launcher SLS is another example of an old-style rocket: everything is lost, only the top tip eventually lands back on Earth. Everything about Starship is reusable. “
In addition, Starship must become an all-rounder, from launching satellites to spaceship for astronauts to Mars. Critics didn’t quite envision that science fiction scenario when the first Starship precursor jumped a few meters in 2019. The test model resembled a flying grain silo. Did that have to go to Mars?
“When Starship was announced, everyone was laughing at SpaceX,” says Klompe. “They have now created a rocket with a super-efficient rocket engine underneath, which has never been built before. And it has already flown to an altitude of more than 12 kilometers and landed successfully.”
This first test flight will begin from SpaceX’s Starbase in Texas. The lower part of the rocket (called ‘Super Heavy’) is to land in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship itself, meanwhile, continues to fly according to plan to orbit around the earth, to plunge into the sea near the Hawaiian island of Kauai an hour and a half after launch.
The colossus is guaranteed not to survive that water landing, expects Klompe. “It’s a steel tower of almost 50 meters. It’s probably leaking. But the thing is packed with sensors that collect huge amounts of data and there are data recorders that can be recovered.”
Whether the flight goes well on Monday remains to be seen. Topman Musk has already tempered expectations. “But they can learn from everything that goes wrong.”
After the test phase, Starship will have to make flying hours. Klompe: “It will be three to four years before this system really flies reliably. Then you will have a system that is fully reusable. That will reduce costs enormously. Then you can launch an unprecedented mass for five to ten million dollars. Competitors charge tens of millions more for that.”
Erik Laan, expert at space consultant Eye on Orbit, still has some doubts about the revenue model that SpaceX has in mind. “I can see the rocket doing it later, but then the next phase will come. Starship has an enormous capacity. Is there enough payload for it? You can’t just put six satellites together that all have to go into a different orbit.”
He is skeptical about passenger flights between major cities. It is virtually impossible to achieve in practice, says Laan. “Just the refueling procedure alone: if a thunderstorm comes close, it has to be pumped empty for safety reasons. Then you’re sitting there waiting in that rocket.”
The new spaceship is suitable for the original purpose, namely flights to the moon and eventually Mars, emphasizes Artemis Westenberg, who promotes manned Mars flights with the organization Explore Mars. “It’s at the ultimate limit of what we as humans think we can do. And it’s dangerous. Space travel is not the same as taking the bus.”
She says sending humans to Mars is just as complicated as the Egyptians building the pyramids. “In addition, you simply need that single-mindedness. Musk absolutely wants to go to Mars. He may never make it. But then he has shown that you can go very far. Already.”
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