Musk’s Starship hits new milestones in development and proves how close we are to space travel

May 3, 2024 — by Zack Zhang
The third testflight of the Starship ready on the launch tower on March 14, displaying the black-covered Starship prototype atop the silver Super Heavy Booster.
SpaceX’s Starship, the tallest and heaviest rocket ever, has made monumental progress towards its goal of sending humans to Mars despite two previously  failed test flights.

After numerous failed attempts of previous launchings, Elon Musk’s private astronautics company SpaceX’s massive 394-feet-tall Starship space shuttle recently carried out its longest test flight to date: spanning 49 minutes. However, the vessel did not survive its last portion of the test flight on March 14 when it lost communication with the ground during its re-entry to Earth process. 

Despite the unfortunate end to its journey, the latest test launch, which is the third trajectory flight of the entire Starship prototype atop the Super Heavy booster, achieved great milestones: The rocket reached a peak altitude of 234 kilometers compared to previous runs cut short by explosions minutes after launch. This time, the rocket also successfully opened and closed its payload doors while in orbit, transferred rocket propellant from one fuel tank to another and turned the direction of its Super Heavy booster back to Earth. 

Analysts say these new accomplishments of the Starship have the potential to revolutionize space transportation. As a part of NASA’s Artemis campaign to return humans to the Moon (for the first time since the Apollo Project), the Starship human landing system (HLS) is an ongoing collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. 

According to Forbes, Musk has planned more tests of the vessel this year and claimed Starship will be on Mars within five years. Many may be skeptical about the plan; however, based on the promising recent progress of SpaceX and various innovative factors, I believe this day is very likely to arrive within its projected timeline. 

First, the launching of the Starship vessel will make economic sense  once it is in its finalized form. Contrary to the traditional rocket boosters that fall off following takeoff and are only single-time use, the boosters used to carry the Starship are reusable. This saves an enormous amount of both material and labor costs to build new structures after every launch. This recyclability factor is particularly crucial when seeking repeatable and frequent transportations of mass population one day. 

Although SpaceX’s previous model, the medium-sized Falcon 9, already demonstrated the feasibility of reusing boosters in multiple previous missions, the Starship’s new Super Heavy booster has improved on top of the older models, no longer requiring designated landing gears. 

Previously on Falcon 9, a total of four landing legs weighed around 2000 kilograms, which can take up almost 10% of the entire vehicle’s payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 22,800 kilograms. The new Super Heavy boosters, unlike Falcon 9, removed the heavy landing gears, which weigh about 2400 kilograms total, and implemented an unprecedented, bold strategy: The launch tower arm will catch the Super Heavy booster on an array of grid fins on the rocket’s body.    

Second, the Starship vessel uses stainless steel as its primary material. Compared to the traditional spacecrafts’ material like an aluminum alloy or carbon fiber, which can cost as high as $220 per kilogram for aerospace grade, stainless steel’s cost is below $5 per kilogram

Finally, thanks to having the most powerful booster in history, the Starship isn’t pressured to eliminate weight like other spacecrafts need to do and thus can make itself more economically efficient — using the more heavy material of stainless steel — and recyclable. 

The Super Heavy Booster incorporates 33 of SpaceX’s powerful Raptor engines and can achieve a maximum thrust power of 16 million pounds, more than doubling the Apollo Missions’ Saturn V Booster’s 7.6 million pounds, which was the biggest and heaviest man-made rocket before the Starship and its Super Heavy Booster. 

Based on the advancing visions of Musk’s team, SpaceX’s Starship could become what lands the first human being on a different planet. Although there are still more hardships, testings and adjustments awaiting the spacecraft and SpaceX down the road, the exponentially growing technology gives us hope to one day see the science fiction tales of space immigration turn into reality.

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