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SpaceX Starship now a ‘top priority,’ Elon Musk says in message calling for accelerated development

What’s next for SpaceX after sending NASA astronauts to the International Space Station? Returning Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley home safely in a few months is top priority for the team working for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

For the rest of SpaceX, CEO Elon Musk wants as many hands on deck working on the next big rocket: Starship. CNBC first reported on a companywide email Musk fired off on Saturday night. In the memo, the SpaceX founder pushed employees to “dramatically and immediately” speed up Starship development.

The Starship system is SpaceX’s next-generation rocket and spacecraft designed to be a “fully reusable transportation system.” Starship will send crew and cargo to Earth orbit and the Moon. SpaceX also intends for Starship reach Mars and other planets.

  • SpaceX currently flies Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets with Dragon spacecrafts
  • Starship will carry up to 100 passengers compared to four on Crew Dragon
  • Starship is still in development with prototype versions tested regularly in Boca Chica, Texas

Rocket goes boom

One day before flying humans onboard the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon system for the first crewed flight test, SpaceX unexpectedly blew up a development prototype version of Starship called SN4 during a static fire test.

The fiery explosion occurred minutes after what appeared to be a successful static fire test proceeded by other successes for SN4.

Test hardware catching on fire and exploding at evacuated test sites is part of rocket development. Elon wants SpaceX to move beyond tests that end in pressurized explosions and prototypes destroyed by fire.

SpaceX already had multiple Starship prototype configurations ready to test when SN4 was destroyed. Each subsequent version includes changes and potential improvements made based on data collected from previous test versions.

First Starship test vehicle

Texas before Mars

CNBC reports that Musk urged SpaceX engineers to “accelerate Starship progress” by considering relocating to the South Texas town where the next-generation rocket system is being developed.

‘Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship,’ Musk wrote in the email.[…]

In his email, Musk asked SpaceX employees to ‘consider spending significant time’ in Boca Chica to help further accelerate Starship development. SpaceX has about 8,000 employees, most of whom are at the company’s Los Angeles area headquarters or its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, or near Austin, Texas. Although SpaceX has some land under lease in the Port of Los Angeles for Starship development, Musk’s email implied that the company is seeking to incentivize employees to move to Texas from California and Florida.

‘For those considering moving, we will always offer a dedicated SpaceX aircraft to shuttle people,’ Musk wrote.

NASA and Starship

SpaceX has good reason to feel pressure over graduating Starship from a concept to a flight proven rocket and spacecraft sooner than later.

Starship Human Landing System rendering

A version of the Starship system is one of three Human Landing System proposals chosen by NASA for future lunar missions under the Artemis Program.

SpaceX is receiving $135 million to develop a fleet of Starships that can be used by NASA, as Space Explored reported in April:

  • NASA says each Starship would have a distinct purpose from propellant storage in low Earth orbit to tanker Starships and human-rated Starships in lunar orbit
  • SpaceX will launch Starship from its Super Heavy rocket booster from Earth
  • SpaceX has also been selected by NASA for missions to send cargo to Gateway, a lunar orbiting docking station that will be deployed in the future.

The Starship system will first have to complete an orbital flight. When might we expect the first flight of Starship? It’s something Elon Musk wants to do with SN5 or SN6 prototypes before the end of this year.