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Elon Musk’s ambitions for Starship soar high while reality waits on launchpad

Comment Elon Musk took part in an interview at the International Astronautical Congress this week and demonstrated a reality distortion field that would make even the most ardent Steve Jobs fanatic take a step back.

The interview, which seemed more of a platform for Musk to extol his vision for interplanetary spaceflight rather than a serious chat about when the monster Starship rocket would leave the ground once again, was conducted in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Regarding the Starship, Musk aimed some snark at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on being asked when the first stage of the launch system might be recovered. “There’s a decent chance – depending on when our licenses are granted – that we would catch the booster in a year. Or maybe less than a year,” he said.

A license is needed before rockets can be launched.

There was one attempt at launching the full Starship and Super-Heavy Booster combo in 2023. The launch had to be aborted shortly into the flight, but not before the launch pad suffered severe damage. The second attempt is still on hold pending regulatory approval.

In order to catch a booster with the arms on the launch tower by 2024, things would need to go very, very well. This would have to start with the FAA green-lighting an impressive launch cadence.

As for Starship, a catch might happen by the end of 2024, although it would only be after SpaceX had demonstrated that it could splash the vehicle intact into a specific location on the Pacific.

Not that a second stage recovery would hold back the Starlink program. Musk claimed: “There’s a good chance we’ll start deploying Starlink v3 satellites roughly a year from now.”

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But Musk’s predictions didn’t stop there, another of which was a landing on Mars within four years. He initially put the timescale at three to four years before shifting it back, much to the undoubted relief of a workforce already racing to keep up with their boss’s statements.

In 2022, SpaceX chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell told an interviewer that SpaceX should put humans on Mars within the decade – still ambitious, but nothing when compared to Musk giving his engineers less than 48 months to make Starship not only work but land on Mars.

Musk put the timescales as driven more by planetary alignment than anything else.

He didn’t give away much to viewers interested to know more about the here and now – getting stages to separate without exploding sounds a challenge – he did make one reference to the past: “We try and draw as many lessons as possible from the Soviet N1 rocket which is probably the closest in design to Starship.”

The Reg can but hope Musk’s team has learned some lessons from the design of the Soviet N1 and that the similarities end at the point of both having lots of engines. The Soviet Moon rocket suffered four launch failures before the program was canceled nearly 50 years ago, including one so catastrophic that it leveled the launch complex. ®

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