Tuesday , March 9 2021

In new details of Starship, Musk reveals a more practical approach

On Thursday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared photos of Raptor rocket engines that recently left the company's factory in Hawthorne, Calif., And was tested at its facility near McGregor, Texas. "Preparing to fire the Starship Raptor engine" he said by means of a legend on Twitter.

The photos were interesting, but Musk made additional comments about the engine that revealed a lot about how the company is proceeding with the overall design of the vehicle they will feed. SpaceX's approach seems focused on keeping costs down and moving as fast as possible for the launch of the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket in the early 2020s.

For example, Musk said, "Initially making a 200 ton metric thrust engine common in ship and booster to reach the Moon as fast as possible. The next versions will be divided into optimized vacuum (380+ sec Isp) and optimized thrust at sea level (~ 250 ton). "

This comment is remarkable for some reasons. First of all, the company seems to have decided to simplify the Raptor engine to a single design that will power both the rocket on takeoff and the spacecraft in the upper atmosphere and outer space. It will take less time to develop, test and qualify a single mechanism. It will also cost less money.

In addition, Musk notes that the goal is "to reach the moon as quickly as possible". The company still seems to be focused on lunar orbital flights, such as the #dearMoon project for Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, as the first missions for Starship.

There is an added benefit to this approach: in the next two decades, NASA seems to be very interested in building infrastructure near and on the Moon. When flying Starship on the first test flights to the same destination, SpaceX has a much better chance of winning contracts from the government to the delivery of cargo and potentially astronauts to the Moon. So far neither NASA nor the US military have shown much, if any, interest in SpaceX's ambitious rocket and spacecraft.

Cost Concerns

In his series of tweets on Thursday night, Musk shared other details that indicate he intends to make Starship fly as fast as possible. For example, early versions of the Super Heavy rocket will probably fly with less than 31 engines, and the launch system reaction control a simpler design.

These moves indicate that SpaceX and Musk are reacting to external pressures, particularly of a financial nature. In addition to the Japanese investor, he has not revealed any customers to Super Heavy and Starship, so the company is pushing with a "build-and-come-to" approach to users. To achieve this, however, it must cut costs elsewhere, as evidenced by the 10% reduction in the workforce in January.

Musk reinforced this in a Jan. 30 investor call from Tesla when asked if recent layoffs at the automaker and at SpaceX indicate a weak economy. As part of his response, Musk noted the need to tighten the belt at SpaceX by embarking on the costly development of Starship and satellite-internet Starlink projects.

"We have to be super hardcore about it," he said about keeping the numbers low. "SpaceX has two absolutely insane projects that would normally lead to the bankruptcy of a company, Starship and Starlink, and so SpaceX has to be incredibly Spartan with spending until those programs come to fruition."

To keep the pain to a minimum, SpaceX will make these programs happen as quickly as possible. If that means that the company's "rocket from Mars" will not be in its final form, or even going to Mars, trips to the Moon may eventually fund missions to the Red Planet. Idealism is great and all, but engineers work best in the real world.

Listing image by Elon Musk / Twitter

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