According to company founder and CEO Elon Musk, the very first orbital mission of SpaceX’s massive new Starship vehicle will, in effect, be a coin.
Starship has about a 50% chance of succeeding on its first orbital test flight, which SpaceX aims to launch from its South Texas location in the next month or so, Musk said last week.
“I’m not saying it will go into orbit, but I guarantee excitement,” Musk said on March 7 during an interview at the Morgan Stanley Conference. (opens in new tab). “So, it won’t be boring!”
Related: SpaceX’s 1st Orbital Starship looks super cool in these fuel test photos
SpaceX is developing Starship to deliver people and cargo to the Moon and Mars and perform a variety of other spaceflight tasks. The giant, stainless-steel vehicle will be the most powerful rocket ever flown, with about 2.5 times more thrust at launch than NASA’s iconic Saturn V, Musk said at the conference.
And Starship is designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, which Musk sees as the key breakthrough needed to enable the colonization of Mars and other ambitious exploration feats.
SpaceX is building several Starship vehicles at the South Texas location it calls Starbase, and plans to launch them in relatively rapid succession over the next few months.
“So I think hopefully we have about an 80% chance of reaching orbit this year,” Musk said in the March 7 interview. “It will probably take us a few more years to achieve full and rapid reusability.”
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Unsurprisingly, Musk would try to temper expectations ahead of Starship’s highly anticipated orbital debut. Rockets often fail on their first flight, as we saw earlier this month with Japan’s new H3 launcher and in January with ABL Space System’s RS1.
And we’ve heard similar words from Musk before: He prepared us all for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to crash and burn on its very first launch attempt.
“I hope it gets far enough away from the pad that it doesn’t cause pad damage. I’d consider even that a win, to be honest,” Musk said of the Heavy in July 2017.
Falcon Heavy rose above those low expectations, successfully launching Musk’s red Tesla Roadster and his spacesuit-clad mannequin driver “Starman” into orbit in February 2018.
But Falcon Heavy is actually a variant of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9; it ties together three Falcon 9 first stages, with an upper stage carrying a payload, on top of the central booster. Starship is a more complicated and new vehicle; for example, it uses 33 of SpaceX’s next-gen Raptor engines in its Super Heavy first stage and six Raptors in the upper stage. (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy both use SpaceX’s venerable Merlin engine.)
You’ll want to tune in to Starship’s upcoming orbital flight, whenever it happens and however it eventually goes. As Musk said, it won’t be boring.
Mike Wall is the author of “Outside (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).