The event came 11 years after SpaceX reached orbit for the first time with the earliest version of its Falcon rockets. Since then, the company has flown rockets to orbit over and over again, then landed the accompanying boosters upright on the ground and reused them, an industry first for orbital missions. The company has launched commercial satellites, government spy missions, and cargo to the International Space Station. It shot a Tesla toward Mars and sprinkled internet satellites around Earth.
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Musk founded SpaceX to someday send people to Mars, and he has said for years that he will make space travel as easy as hopping on a plane. As he stood in front of a gleaming steel spaceship, it was tempting to start believing him. “It’s really gonna be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back,” Musk said.
But that is the hypnotic nature of such showcases. The flashiness of the affair, the giddy confidence of the host—these can almost elide the unspoken hitch here, that building an interplanetary spaceship is far more difficult than hardwiring a smartphone.
The specifics of the spaceship project have fluctuated over the years, with Musk introducing and then scrapping several designs and names. The latest—and, it seems, final—iteration is a stainless-steel behemoth bookended by sharp fins. Musk envisions a rather unprecedented landing process; the vessel would return to Earth like a skydiver falling belly first, before righting itself and landing upright, as Falcon 9 rockets do.
Last month, another Starship prototype levitated about 500 feet (150 meters) into the sky and then glided down. The next test will aim higher. Musk said this prototype, which measures 164 feet (50 meters) high and 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, would fly to 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) within one to two months.
“This is gonna sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” Musk said. “I think we could potentially see people flying next year, if we get to orbit in about six months.” The passengers could depart from Boca Chica or Cape Canaveral, the vaunted site of the Apollo and space-shuttle launches, where SpaceX operates a pair of launchpads.
Don’t mark your calendars just yet. Musk is known for his optimistic deadlines, and SpaceX projects, as is true of virtually all space-exploration efforts, tend to launch several years later than predicted. Musk himself recognized that last night as he described a future in which Starship flies several times a day. “I’m giving you literally just stream of consciousness here,” Musk said.
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There is also the small matter of the complicated nature of Starship’s payload. Aside from a pair of fiery mishaps a few years ago, SpaceX has shown that it can reliably deploy satellites and cargo to space. But it has never launched people.