This article is supported by brilliant org. Just a few weeks ago, SpaceX presented their update to their starship program, and this is where I would normally give a quick rundown of what happened. But I’m, pretty sure.
Like 99 % of you saw it, and you also probably saw my buddy Tim duh, the everyday astronaut do a quick interview with Elon afterwards, which was really awesome. You know, of course, I’ve, had a lot of people asking if I’m like jealous, that Tim got to talk with Elon and of course no no, I mean I’m happy for him.
I’m happy for him. I’m. Just I’m just so happy for him. This isn’t working. It’s, always interesting when they announce changes to the design of the starship or any of their vehicles, and it always makes me kind of look back and see what’s changed over the years, and it hit me this time around.
That this is the fourth iteration of this vehicle and it has changed wildly since the beginning. So well, I know a lot of people are already talking about this. I thought it was worth a article to take a look at the evolution of this vehicle because I think we’re, seeing something really remarkable here.
We’re, witnessing a group of people tackle one of the biggest goals in the history of humanity, if not the biggest and through the changes that they’re making in the design of the starship. We could have a front-row seat to that.
We are actually seeing this happen in real time right now, and there’s, a lot of people out there, of course, who think that the whole idea of going to Mars is foolhardy and crazy, but whether or not you even think they will succeed.
Being able to watch this happen, it’s, pretty fascinating to understand the evolution of starship. You have to understand the overarching goal of SpaceX, which is to make humanity a multiplanetary species.
Elon has been accused of many things, but thinking too small is not one of them. Over the years he’s spoken about the importance of having a second home out there in the solar system, because, as long as every human being is on planet Earth, all it takes is one good asteroid strike to completely obliterate us and even barring That over time, the Sun is going to get hotter and hotter, and eventually this planet is just gon na become uninhabitable.
He’s also talked about just about traveling to Mars, is gon na be inspiring to humanity and how the technological challenges that we have to overcome to get to Mars will provide technological advancements for us down here on earth from the day started.
Spacex in 2002 he had this goal in mind and yes, this is the entire SpaceX team. In 2002, the mariachi band worked guidance of not mistaken. It took four years for their first rocket, the Falcon one to get off the ground unsuccessfully, and that was in 2006.
It took two more years in the verge of bankruptcy before they finally got the Falcon one into orbit, which they celebrated by completely killing the Falcon one program and building the Falcon 9. Just imagine working on something for six years and having one success and then dropping the whole thing and building something nine times.
Bigger. Spacex is not a company that believes in sunk cost. They move forward, no matter what, even if it means going back to the drawing board, so it shouldn’t be surprising that in 2012, only two years after they got the first Falcon 9 off the ground in 2010.
Elon was already talking about the next big thing, which at the time was called the Mars colonial transporter. This was really more of an idea than anything he mentioned it in a few interviews, but he never really provided specifics and they never released any images for it either though there’s, a lot of fan art out there speculating what it would look Like but all that changed on September 27, 2016 at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, this was the big reveal of the ship that he called the interplanetary transport system or I TS and in this presentation he laid out the broad strokes of the mission architecture.
Some of which have remained unchanged this whole time. The architecture includes a two-part fully reusable vehicle stack made up of a booster and a spaceship. The booster works basically like the Falcon 9 booster launching the spaceship into space and then returning to the pad to land with the help of grid fins.
Just like the Falcon 9 only difference is the booster is rapidly reusable and can take off in a matter of hours with a second ship. This one, a refueling ship, the refueling ship, tops off the spaceship in orbit.
This might actually need to happen a few times to fill er up completely, but after that it’s off to Mars or the moon, Titan Enceladus, let your mind, go wild and all this was based on their Raptor engine, which was still in development.
At the time, the Raptor engine is a methane-based engine technically methyl LOX because it uses liquid oxygen as well. But the reasoning for that is that the methane can be made from water and co2 through something called the Sabatier process in both co2 and water are available.
On the surface of Mars, meaning this is a ship that can be refueled from the resources right there on Mars, also known as in situ resource utilization. The raptor is also a full flow stage. Combustion engine they’ll, be one of the most powerful engines in the world and methane is cheap, which cuts down on the cost of launches, which is already super cheap, because the ship is fully reusable.
So are you really paying for? Is the fuel the Raptor engine is a big part of the starship program and instead of going through all the details of why it’s such a big deal, I’m just gon na point you to Tim’s; Article on the Raptor engine, because I promise, like all the details, are there, the even bigger picture, establishes a possibility of refueling stations on Mars and other spots in the solar system like Titan, which has liquid methane lakes right there on the surface, creating a network of Weigh station throughout the solar system, now those broad strokes about how the system will work the two fully reusable stages: the methane based propulsion, the raptor engine, all that stuff.
Those are the mandatories that have to be met in this program and those mandatories have affected the design changes that have occurred ever since a design that has changed radically over the years. So the 2016 version of the I TS that was presented back then that was a monster of a vehicle.
It measured a total height of 127 meters taller than the saturn v made up of a booster that was 77 metres tall and a ship that was 49 metres long and a massive 12 metres wide. Let’s. Talk about the ship for just a second.
It was designed to carry up to a hundred people and had almost as much pressurized space as the international space station with giant windows in the upper section and portholes for living spaces down below.
It was to be made of carbon fibre to make it as light as possible, and they built it in a wedge shape for re-entry. It had nine raptor engines, six vacuum engines and three sea level engines and it would refuel with a tank of variants.
Belly-To-Belly. The booster would have 42 raptor engines on it, giving it a whopping 13,000 pounds of thrust a take off more than three times out of the Saturn 5, and the overall system was capable of putting 300 tons of payload into orbit fully reusable and with refueling in Orbit it could get up to 450 tons of cargo to Mars in time.
He wanted to send thousands of these ships to Mars over the next 50 200 years to get a long-term presence set up there, possibly a million person colony. This is, of course, really far in the future, but this system in the meantime, as massive as it is, it actually brings down the cost of launching things into space because, like I said before, everything is fully reusable.
So all you’re, really paying, for is the fuel. The importance of the total reusability thing cannot be overstated. I mean, even if we never even go to Mars with this system. The fact that you can get such massive payloads up in space helps to bring about space construction, bring about new Space Station’s, moon bases worldwide broadband internet.
The list goes on so the design very futuristic, flat-bottomed wedge-shaped white on top black on the bottom big-ass windows, 12 meters wide it was over-the-top in every way and by the way, just to put all this into perspective, they had just landed the Falcon 9 for the First time a year before that, so this is what plowing forward looks like so a year past, an Elan made another presentation at the International Astronautical Congress, this time in Adelaide, Australia and this time presenting a ship that he called the bfr which stood for big Falcon Rocket or big rocket, depending on whether or not you want to be demonetized and the biggest change of the design on this one is that it’s, just simply a smaller vehicle all the way across the board.
It was 106 meters tall 21 metres shorter than the previous one, and even more importantly, it was nine metres wide instead of 12, like the IT has the previous year, and the pressurized volume went down to 825 cubic meters.
Now my understanding was that there weren’t any current facilities that could actually manage a 12 metre wide rocket, so they had to go with the 9 metre wide because that’s, just what they had the ability to deal with at The time smaller diameter means less room for engines, so the booster went from 42 down to 31 engines, with six in the spaceship to sea level and for vacuum.
Optimized. The maximum reusable payload went down to 150 tonnes with a max thrust of 5,400 tons close to half the previous version, and the ship took on a much more round, cylindrical shape compared to the previous model, with a small delta wing in the rear, still white.
On top and black on the bottom, with massive windows at the top, so smaller, but possibly capable of a lot more different versions of the ship were presented. This time, including a payload version, a refueling version and a passenger version and the refueling changed this time around by the way.
This is where they stopped doing side-to-side and started doing butt to butt and going back over the presentation that caught that the reason why they wanted to do this was because, basically, all you have to do is take the refueling vehicle and just throttle it up.
Like you would normally do to launch, and it would just push that fuel into the other vehicle, obviously, instead of lighting it on fire, this actually is a pretty ingenious way of going about doing it, because you’re, not introducing any new hardware complications To the system, but the big kicker of the night was showing off their point-to-point capability showing how they can send past from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes.
All this points to a wider role for the bfr than the previous version, which makes sense, because one of the things that he says in this presentation is that once VFR gets off the ground and they perfect the whole system, they’re gon na Stop using Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy completely they’re gon na go full bfr, 100 % on everything, so bfr is now their all-around workhorse, so they scale it down to make it more versatile.
Now one little design thing about this: one that’s, always confused me – is it doesn’t seem to have any landing legs, except in this picture, where it’s sitting on a lunar base. It has little legs sticking out, but maybe that’s, a lunar variant, I don’t, know anybody.
I don’t, know doesn’t matter, because, a year later, on September 17th of 2018, he presented a newer version of the vehicle. This time called while it was still called VFR at the time. This ship grew a little back up to 118 meters tall still 9 meters wide.
The ship itself is 55 of those meters, giving it a little more than a thousand cubic meters of pressurized volume. The booster still has 31 engines on it, but the ship goes back up to 7 and the interesting thing about this one is that all the engines are the same size so yeah, instead of half of them being vacuum, optimized and half of them being sea-level optimized.
They’re all the same shape, so I don’t know: are they all sea level optimized? I’ve, never understood that. Also in this design, they surrounded the engines with extra cargo space, which makes sense. If you’re traveling to Mars, it would be good to have the big stuff right down there.
At surface level, design wise the ship had a couple of different major changes, the first being three legs at the bottom, two of which are actuated to control the descent back to earth. The third one is just a leg, but they also added actuated fins at the top, giving it something of a narrow look and this one kind of breaks with tradition.
The past two were wedges and Delta’s. That kind of used the shape of the vehicle to glide down, and this one uses actuated fins that the corollary being that it kind of guides itself down like a skydiver.
My bet is that, through some of their computer simulations and someone with the stuff that they learned with the dragon capsules, they figured out that that shape was just too unstable. So they had to have some way of kind of you know controlling it, and you often referred to the Tintin look of this vehicle, which is apt.
It has a retro look to it, which is really cool, still a carbon-fiber structure of white on the top black on the bottom for the heat shield. Although he did say that carbon-fiber was turning out to be one of their biggest challenges in the design of the spaceship, and he was considering maybe going with something else.
Oh and this is they announced the dare moon project with Japanese billionaire usako Misawa, which is a plan to send artists on a trip around the moon, which doesn’t have anything to its design, but still very cool.
Two months later, Elin announced on Twitter that they were changing the name from bfr to starship. Actually, the ship itself is called starship. The booster is called the super-heavy. So from this point forward the whole system – doesn’t, really have a name anymore.
Although everybody just kind of calls it starship, one month later, SpaceX dropped a bomb and announced possibly the biggest design change in the history of this vehicle when they decided to go away from carbon-fiber and switch to stainless steel.
Now, struggling from a design and aesthetics point of view, this drastically changes the look of the vehicle, but that’s. Not what makes it one of the biggest changes they’ve ever made on it. In fact, it confused a lot of people at first to go with stainless steel, because the whole point of doing carbon-fiber was that it was so light, and now they’re.
Switching to stainless steel, like what’s, that about as Elon would later explained, not only was carbon fiber just becoming too problematic, especially dealing with around cryogenic temperatures. It was also way more expensive.
It was a hundred and thirty thousand dollars per ton of carbon fiber, where a stainless steel was twenty five hundred dollars per ton and that’s. What they were gon na use a certain alloy called 301 stainless steel, which actually gets stronger at cryogenic temperatures and on the other side of that it actually has a very high melting point, which means you don’t need as much heat shield and In fact, they got rid of the heat shield altogether.
The idea is called transpiration’old cooling. Basically, the reentry side of the vehicle would be have like millions of pores on it and as it reentered the atmosphere, it was sweat fuel through those pores, and this burning fuel would actually create a small vapor layer between the heat and the ship, keeping the worst Of the heat from actually getting to that high melting point, stainless steel, it’s kind of like when you have a really hot skillet and you drop some water on it.
Instead of just evaporating immediately, it kind of rolls around for a little bit and that’s, because there’s, a tiny layer of air at the bottom of that bubble, keeping the rest of it from getting too hot.
This is called the leading frost effect, so crazy, yes, never been tried, yes, but that high melting point of steel means that you need less heat shield and that means less weight. So, according to Elan going with stainless steel can actually be lighter than going with carbon fiber.
So this gets us pretty much caught up most recent announcement on September 28th, but one thing that said apart this announcement from the others was that all the others had something of a one more thing moment.
You know the point-to-point transfer the dear moon project. That kind of thing this one didn’t have anything like that. In fact, it didn & # 39. T really have any surprises at all, but this presentation did have one thing that none of the others did an actual ship standing behind.
Elon was the reason why there are no real surprises that this presentation, the mark one starship prototype – that we’ve, all been watching, get built out in the open air at the facilities at Boca, Chica Texas.
We pretty much all seen this in pictures before the big reveal. We’d, also just recently seen the first onboard test of the Raptor engine, including an impressive 20 meter, hop using only one engine on the star hopper test and which, by the way, we had all just watched, getting built by a water tower.
Company 2019 was kind of crazy. The mark 1 was hastily put together. It almost looks like it was assembled with leftover tin, foil from Chipotle, or something like that, but it’s. It’s, basically a glorified star hopper with three engines.
Instead of one, but this is a real ship, it’s, gon na go up to 20 kilometers and test coming up just in a few days. Maybe from the time you’re saying us this time around starship is 50 metres. Long still, 9 meters wide and the super-heavy 69 meters long so altogether it’s, just a little taller than a Saturn 5.
The shape will have six engines, three sea level and three vacuum optimized kind of undoing the weirdness of the previous version. The super-heavy will have up to 37 engines this time, which is more than last time, but they seem to making it customizable saying that you might need as few as 24 design-wise.
They drop the three fin configuration and went down to just two and the after. With the two actuated fins up top and they brought back the heat shield, clearly the transformational thing just wasn’t working, but the biggest thing design wise is the stainless steel construction.
This massively changes the look at the vehicle with the heat shield on the bottom. It now has a shiny, chrome, top side. The black underside, thanks to the hexagonal heat shield tiles. Also, the new to thin design definitely makes it look something closer to a space plane or a glider.
The re-entry process is the same as before, but now we’ll land on four, possibly six nubs on the bottom. The super-heavy has six legs that flare out from the bottom. That Elon was quick to point out that they don’t serve an aerodynamic function.
They’re just legs, as I said a second ago, the mark one is scheduled to do a kilometer, hop test down in Boca, Chica and the next soon very soon, and they plan on doing orbital launches in the next six months or so now.
There’s, another one being built a mark in Cocoa Beach over in Florida. They think that the orbital test will probably be a mark for a mark 5 version, and this design is sure to continue evolving as they go into testing this thing, you know a lot of the changes up to this point have been aesthetically driven, some of them Driven by computer models and that kind of thing, but once they actually start getting data back from the tests on these prototypes, we’re gon na start.
Seeing changes happen a lot faster. In fact, my bet is that by the time they do a presentation a year from now it’s. Gon na have already involved two or three times by that point, and my bet is that those fins down at the bottom are gon na kind of get a little bit bigger.
It feels like the horizontal surface of the vehicle has been increasing over time, like that seems to be the trend, but surely it’s based off of their computer models with the re-entry and everything so which is my favorite design.
Honestly, I, like the Tintin version from 2018. I don’t know why I just like how it looks. I, like the fins I like the legs at the bottom, even though the engines don’t really make any sense because they all seem to be sea level engines.
I like how it looks it just it looks like a movie spaceship. You know. I look at it and I hear Alan Silvester replaying in my head visually. I like the carbon fiber, look more than the stainless steel.
Look. I still like that a little bit better. Although the stainless steel is growing on me, I think it’s. Gon na be really cool to see in person, and I also think it’s. Gon na look really cool with that blue purple flame, that the Raptor engines produce, and perhaps a bigger question is, do I think that they can actually pull this off and honestly, I think they & # 39.
Ve got a pretty good chance. You know Tim made a point recently that if you look back at the 2016 presentation, the timeline that he said they’re kind of sticking with it. I mean a lot of people laughed at the idea of getting to Mars by 2024 and that might still be a question mark, but he was saying that they would start doing launch tests and orbital tests in 2019 2020.
I mean barring any major disasters. We’re kind of looking at that. His timeline to get people up in space on the starship by 2020 feels a bit rushed to me. I’m a little bit skeptical with a Tamiya special looking at how long it’s, taken for crude dragon to become a thing, and also they’re, doing a lot of things for the first time, like the the Belly flop maneuver to propulsive landing and refueling in outer space, but every year since 2012, SpaceX has been able to achieve some kind of first in their program.
So considering how much they’ve learned how much they’ve, innovated, already kind of piling on top of itself. I don’t know. I think it might be possible. They could at least get cargo to Mars by 2024.
I mean keep in mind that the very first Falcon heavy launch, but the Roadster out at Mars orbit, so it’s. Gon na be interesting to watch all this unfold in the coming years. It’s, easy to get a little obsessed with it.
We’re, getting to see something we’ve, never really gotten to see before. But tell me in the comments below what’s, your favorite version of the starship. In fact, I’ll, put a little pull right here with all the four different versions of, and you guys can vote.
I have a feeling the stainless steel versions, a little bit more popular than I’ve, let on and of course it’s, not just about design. What’s fascinating to me about this is how they & # 39. Ve made these design changes with a very specific goal in mind.
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