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NASA Administrator upends the scorn bucket on Elon Musk's Starship spurtings

Mars, Moon and shiny steel is all well and good. But how about sending a crew to the ISS without anything exploding, hmm?

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk braved the wind to give the faithful an update on the progress of the Starship and Super Heavy program from the company's Boca Chica facility in Texas.

Standing in front of the recently assembled Starship Mk 1, on the 11th anniversary of the first time the company managed to reach orbit, Musk reflected on the importance of that launch ("if that fourth launch had not succeeded that would have been curtains"), the challenges of booster recovery (a regular crowd pleaser for the Falcon 9) and, of course, his dreams of heading beyond Earth orbit.

Having demonstrated a relatively low (in SpaceX terms) 150-metre hover using the Raptor engine with an earlier, stumpy-looking Starhopper prototype, the Mk1 is destined to initially fly to 20km.

The frenetic pace of development of Starship means that Musk's promise that the larger hop could happen in "about one to two months" is entirely plausible.

The design of Starship has been somewhat fluid over the years, and the latest has the reusable spacecraft coming in at 50 metres in length with a diameter of 9 metres. The thing, according to Musk, is likely to weigh in at 120 tons once in production (quite a jump from optimistic renderings putting the dry mass as 85 tons) although the Mk 1 prototype is a much heftier 200 tons.

The key figure for the in-production vehicle is the 150 tons Musk expects it will be able to carry to orbit while still being fully reusable.

Of course, Starship is merely the second stage of the monstrous stack Musk has planned. The first stage, the Super Heavy booster, is currently expected to be 68 metres long, take up to 37 Raptor engines (Musk reckoned the minimum would be 24) and land using the grid fin technology used to guide a Falcon 9 through the atmosphere. The landing leg count has been increased to six.

As ever, Musk was bullish about timescales for getting Starship into space. Should the beast reach orbit in the next six months, Musk said "we could potentially see people flying next year".

It's all exciting stuff, and few would bet against Musk's boffins after achieving the seemingly impossible feat of landing and reusing a Falcon 9 booster.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine poured a little cold water on proceedings, pointing out that while the Starship excitement was all well and good, maybe Musk and co could perhaps get on with sending crews to the ISS?

It seemed a slightly cheap shot, since Boeing, one of the contractors for the agency's own monster - and very definitely not reusable - rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is also on the receiving end of taxpayer dollars and has yet to ferry a crew into orbit. And, of course, the SLS has suffered horrendous delays despite the billions spent on it.

It would leave many at the US space agency blushing if Musk manages to get a Starship into orbit ahead of the SLS. Assuming, of course, the thing actually works. ®

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