April 3rd 2019: Elon Musk continued to push forward the boundaries of space travel with the first test-firing of the ‘Starship’ rocket system.
As a test version of SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft, the smaller Starhopper successfully ignited its onboard engine for a short test, lifting it only a few feet from the launch pad before settling back down. This test vehicle comprised the lower section of the rocket, as Elon Musk deemed the full assembly to be unnecessary for the test firings.
The full-size Starship vehicle is intended to take scientists and paying passengers to the Moon, and later on, Mars. Allegedly made from stainless steel, although lacking a flux capacitor, Starship is planned to launch atop the SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster—originally named Big Falcon Rocket, one of the most powerful rockets ever made.
After achieving low orbit, the Super Heavy will then return to Earth for re-use in the same way as the astonishing Falcon 9 boosters.
Everything’s Bigger In Texas
Built in Texas at the company’s launch and test facility, the Starhopper still needs to conduct more hover test flights before any part of the vehicle sees space. The tests are crucial to the development of SpaceX’s Raptor engine, which will eventually power both Starship and Super Heavy.
Starhopper is currently fitted with a single Raptor, although Starship will boast seven, and Super Heavy will enjoy a massive push from a cluster of thirty-one, yes, 31! Raptors.
With the Raptor using a mix of cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen, Musk estimates a ten to twenty percent increase in power compared to the ‘warm propellant’ used in earlier testing. Musk hopes Starship will eventually generate up to 170 metric tons of thrust during launch.
For this writer, a new and exciting Space Race has emerged, with Jeff Bezos, fronting Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic all reaching for the Moon and stars, and it’s a thrilling time to be alive.
It’s a time which hasn’t been seen since the Sixties, when the previous generation thrilled, and feared, the USA and USSR’s urgent scramble into orbit and ultimately, the USA’s missions to the Moon.
However, after the insane spending, came the cold reality and Congress stifled further exploration, forcing NASA to shelve the nuclear NERVA engine, which might have pushed astronauts to Mars as early as the 1980s, spending the now-meager budget on the horse-designed-by-a-committee, the Space Shuttle.
Wonderfully inspiring in its day, at least to the layperson, the poor shuttle turned out to be a mish-mash of departmental wishes, very unlike the original concept drawings, its design stifled by conflicting demands. Sadly, it seemed to prove that throw-away hardware was far safer than reusable.
However, have we now come full circle, to a time where reusable rockets cost less than throw-aways? Three billionaires seem to think so and are pinning their money and reputation on perfecting their respective systems.
If I was to criticize this endeavor in any way, and it’s a small complaint, it’s this: When the Shuttle was first being air-tested on the back of a Boeing 747. There were Star Trek fans, hungry for a revival of their beloved 1960’s series, begged NASA to name the test vehicle OV-101 Enterprise. It was a tribute to James T. Kirk’s iconic starship, and although the campaign was successful, the sad irony was that Enterprise never flew in space.
I’m reminded of those days now when I read about Musk’s Starship, a vehicle which I’m certain will be ultimately successful, but will never reach any actual stars. Also, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is even less likely to live up to its title.
However, the name is less important than the ventures it inspires. Enterprise preceded 135 flights into orbit, and I’m thrilled for a future where Starship finally takes human beings to Mars, and a Galactic spaceplane allows the more affluent of us see the curve of the Earth with our own eyes.
Above us, lies the future.