Starship and Super Heavy, the next phase of BFR from Elon Musk’s SpaceX

2019 is a big year for SpaceX and Mars fans as this is the year that Elon Musk announced he would start testing the Starship, formerly known as the BFR – which may have meant Big Falcon Rocket or other variations. This heavy rocket and spacecraft combination will be unique and a game changer. About this time last year we had a look at Elon Musk and what he was planning and though it still seemed exciting it was a bit vague on the details. But in the typical style that SpaceX has adopted, they have just got on and started building parts of the Starship and its associated rocket, the Super Heavy. The name change from the BFR is indicative of the continuing maturation of the design which has changed considerably over the last couple of years. The ambitious plan to test this year and have humans on the way to Mars by 2024 is still on the list of SpaceX objectives.

Early construction of SpaceX's Starship.
Early stage of construction of Starhopper (Credit: Elon Musk’s Twitter feed)

At SpaceX’s Boca Chica site in Texas a very 1950s sci fi looking spaceship is being constructed. The huge stainless steel test version of the eventual second stage, that Musk plans to send humans to Mars in, will apparently be ready for testing in only a matter of weeks. The craft will be used for low altitude testing to test manoeuvrability and other basic systems before going a bit higher and completing more comprehensive testing. Musk has a bit of a style for injecting a bit of humour and outrageous statements into his projects and the design of Starship certainly represents that with it’s stainless steel coat and retro shape. Early last year he stunned the world by launching his Falcon Heavy rocket with a Tesla roadster and Starman as the payload. Whether you believe in Musk’s ambitious plans or not, he seems to end up delivering pretty consistently though not always as smoothly has he would probably like.

As far as plans for the Starship are going the construction of the Starhopper test vehicle is well ahead of schedule. Musk mentioned on Twitter that he might be looking at the tests starting in as little as four weeks. The operational Starship will be the second stage of the system and will be slightly larger than the Starhopper test vehicle – and with windows.

SpaceX's Starship being constructed at Boca Chica in Texas.
Starhopper (Credit: forum.nasaspaceflight.com BocaChicaGal)

It’s a simple plan, develop launch systems that enable the development of bigger and more versatile systems that will get humans to Mars. The latest iteration is the crewed Dragon capsule that will enable the US to send astronauts from its own soil for the first time since 2011 when the Space Shuttle conducted its last flight. The Falcon 9 launch system has continued to develop and and now regularly launches and recovers the first stage for re-use. Rocket launches are expensive and there’s not a lot that can be done to reduce the cost of the fuel – it’s a constraint of the chemical rockets we rely on to access space that they burn a lot of fuel and until we figure out a different way of getting into to space then we are stuck with this high energy and expensive process. SpaceX changed the economics of accessing space by recycling the first stage of its Falcon 9.

Musk has made no secret of his plan for the Starship/Super Heavy combination to be the single launch system for SpaceX. Late last year SpaceX announced it was halting further development of innovations to increase the reusability of the Falcon 9 in order to concentrate on the development of the Starship/Super Heavy. This makes sense as the entire launch assembly will be reusable and multipurpose for both low earth orbit and further afield. Going to one launch system with such versatility also takes SpaceX out of the competitive medium lift environment. Musk’s critics may scoff at his plans for the Starship/Super Heavy but so far his plans seem to be progressing just as he stated.