Last year was unquestionably the best year in SpaceX’s history, CEO Elon Musk told his employees during an all-hands meeting in South Texas last week.
There were 96 flights of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, plus the first two test flights of the enormous new Starship rocket. In 2024, SpaceX said it aims for more than 140 launches of the Falcon rocket family. There may be up to 10 Starship test flights this year, according to the NASA official who manages the agency’s contract with SpaceX to develop Starship into a human-rated Moon lander.
SpaceX posted a video late Friday on the social media platform X of Musk’s all-hands meeting at the Starbase launch facility near Brownsville, Texas. The hour-long video includes Musk’s comments on SpaceX’s recent accomplishments and plans, but the video ends before employees ask questions of their boss.
While it would be nice to see space reporters get more opportunities to question Musk about SpaceX, it’s good to see the company sharing these kinds of videos. Musk has presented several formal updates on Starship in the past—in person and virtual—and taken questions from reporters and space enthusiasts.
Nevertheless, the recent all-hands meeting included significant updates on Starship and other SpaceX programs. We now know a little more about what happened at the end of an otherwise successful Starship test flight from South Texas in November, preventing the rocket from achieving its planned trajectory. And Musk talked about what we can expect in upcoming Starship test flights.
He also touched on the records set by SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon rocket family this year. Until Starship is fully operational, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will keep flying. SpaceX has launch contracts for both rockets into the late 2020s.
Musk said SpaceX is working on extending the life of Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage boosters. Originally, SpaceX said each Falcon 9 booster could fly up to 10 times without a major overhaul. Some Falcon 9s have now flown almost twice that number of missions.
“We’ve done a 19th re-flight,” Musk said. “We’re now qualifying Falcon 9 to be able to do 40 flights, and we’re aiming for maybe as much as 150 flights this year.”
Ramping up the launch cadence will require SpaceX to increase factory throughout to produce more Falcon 9 second stages, which are only used once. And SpaceX will need to get even better at turning around its Falcon 9 launch pads between missions
“We’re aiming to hopefully, I think, get under 24 hours pad turnaround by the end of this year,” Musk said.
What happened on the last Starship flight?
Perhaps the most interesting part of Musk’s presentation centered on Starship.
Starship’s second full-scale test flight on November 18 surpassed SpaceX’s goals going into the launch. Musk said the primary objective was to get the rocket past staging, a milestone just shy of three minutes into the flight when Starship’s upper stage separated from its Super Heavy booster.
Getting to that point, the Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines all worked, apparently flawlessly, then Starship’s upper stage lit its six Raptor engines to continue the climb into space.
The Super Heavy booster exploded moments later as it began a boost-back burn to guide itself toward a controlled splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. This was a secondary objective, but SpaceX engineers will have to correct this issue before it can recover and reuse a Super Heavy booster.
Starship—the rocket’s upper stage—continued flying until around eight minutes into the flight, when it broke apart in space over the Gulf of Mexico. This happened less than 30 seconds before Starship’s engines were supposed to cut off, when the vehicle would have accumulated enough velocity to reach its planned trajectory, taking it most of the way around the world. If everything went perfectly, the ship would have reentered the atmosphere and splashed down near Hawaii.
Musk didn’t discuss what happened with the Super Heavy booster on the November flight, but he said Starship disintegrated during a liquid oxygen vent late in its burn. The Raptor engines consume liquid oxygen and methane as propellants.
“Flight 2 actually almost made it to orbit,” Musk said. “The reason that it actually didn’t quite make it to orbit was we vented the liquid oxygen, and the liquid oxygen ultimately led to a fire and an explosion. We wanted to vent the liquid oxygen because we normally wouldn’t have that liquid oxygen if we had a payload. Ironically, if it had a payload, it would have reached orbit.”
Musk didn’t offer any more details about the liquid oxygen vent but said he thinks SpaceX has a “really good shot of reaching orbit” on the next Starship test flight. This third full-size Starship test flight is likely weeks away. Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration, said in a NASA teleconference last week that SpaceX aims to have hardware for the next Starship launch ready this month.
She said SpaceX anticipates getting a commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration in February. SpaceX launched its first two Starship test flights within a few days of receiving its FAA license.
SpaceX introduced numerous changes to the Starship design between its first and second flights last year, including a water deluge system at the launch pad, a redesigned stage separation technique, and replacing hydraulic thrust vector controls with an electrically driven engine steering system.
“With Flight 1, the goal was not to blow the pad up and ideally get some distance, which we did,” Musk said. “With Flight 2, it was to get past staging, so we achieved the goal of getting past staging and almost to orbit.”
Starship’s coming attractions
SpaceX plans to debut a payload bay door on Starship for the next flight. On subsequent flights, the payload bay door will open to release Starlink broadband satellites into orbit, a design Musk likens to a Pez dispenser. SpaceX is also gearing up for a propellant transfer test under the auspices of a $53 million NASA contract the company received in 2020. This “Tipping Point” demonstration will involve transferring super-cold propellant from a header tank at the top of the Starship vehicle to one of its main tanks while flying in space.
It’s a precursor to future, more complex demonstrations involving two giant Starships docked together in Earth orbit. Then SpaceX will be ready to send a Starship toward the Moon for a test landing without astronauts onboard. Once that is successful, NASA will clear Starship for a crew landing on the agency’s Artemis III mission, marking the astronauts’ return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. This is now expected no earlier than September 2026, NASA recently announced.
The next Starship test flight will also try to reignite the spacecraft’s Raptor engines in space for the first time. Last year, the first two Starship flights targeted near-orbital trajectories that would have brought the ships back into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean after completing nearly a full loop around the planet. SpaceX selected this flight profile to ensure Starship returned to Earth rather than becoming stranded in low-Earth orbit.
“Flight 3, we want to get to orbit and we want to do an in-space engine burn from the header tank and prove that we can reliably de-orbit,” Musk said. “We want to do a Tipping Point header-to-main propellant transfer. This is important for the NASA Artemis program. And we also want to demonstrate the payload door for the … Pez dispenser for delivering the Starlinks.”
Musk said he hopes to launch Starlinks on Starship flights by the end of this year. So far, all Starlink satellites have launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. He didn’t discuss near-term plans for SpaceX to recover Starships or Super Heavy boosters, although attempts at water landings of both vehicles are expected on the next test flight. Eventually, SpaceX wants to catch returning Super Heavy boosters back on the launch pad with giant mechanical arms.
SpaceX is constructing a second Starship launch pad at Starbase in South Texas. “We’re going to really be launching a lot, and we’re going to be upgrading one tower while we’re launching from another tower, so two towers is important,” Musk said.
For Artemis missions, SpaceX will likely need to fly Starships nearly as often as they’re launching Falcon 9 rockets—multiple times per week—to aggregate methane and liquid oxygen propellants into a storage depot in Earth orbit. Then the human-rated Starship lander will launch into low-Earth orbit, link up with the depot, and receive its full propellant load to head for the Moon.
NASA’s astronaut crews will depart Earth on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, then link up with the Starship lander in orbit around the Moon. Starship will ferry two of the four-person Artemis crew from Orion to the lunar surface, then back to Orion for the ride home.
The human-rated Starship lander, the Starship depot, and Starship tankers will all launch on top of Super Heavy boosters from sites in Texas and Florida. This is an immense challenge. SpaceX has demonstrated its ability to dock spaceships in orbit, but no one has ever transferred meaningful amounts of cryogenic propellants in space before. Musk said he’s confident SpaceX can do it.
“That’s a big deal,” he said. “This is one of the fundamental technologies that’s necessary to build a city on Mars and to have a Moon base.”
NASA’s view on Starship
NASA is closely tracking SpaceX’s progress on Starship. The agency has tapped SpaceX to provide lunar landing craft for the Artemis III and Artemis IV missions, the Artemis program’s first two Moon landing missions. Before Artemis III, SpaceX must complete an uncrewed lunar landing with Starship. Blue Origin will develop the lander for Artemis V, and the two companies are expected to compete for contracts for subsequent lunar landing missions.
“The one thing that I really appreciate about SpaceX is they want to move fast at all costs until they get to the crew mission,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the Artemis Human Landing System.
SpaceX’s iterative development paradigm is hardware-rich, meaning there are multiple Starships and Super Heavy boosters undergoing preparation for launch in South Texas. This is counter to the way NASA traditionally develops its rockets.
“If you’re rich in hardware, you can do that quickly, rebound, learn, infuse, and be off to the races,” Watson-Morgan said. “I think that is so exciting. I also have over 34 years at NASA, and I understand it’s very hard for systems that we design to go in and do that because we are expected to be almost perfect the first time.”
“It’s always better to sacrifice hardware rather than sacrifice time,” Musk said. “Time is the one true currency. The fastest path to a rapidly reusable reliable rocket.”
This means SpaceX is poised to launch Starship a lot. “They have told us maybe up to 10 flight tests this year, only one of which is a milestone on our contract,” Watson-Morgan said.
This year’s big milestone for NASA’s Artemis program is the ship-to-ship propellant transfer demo, in which two Starships will dock in orbit to prove SpaceX can flow hundreds of gallons of super-cold propellants from one vehicle to another. The tests will help SpaceX and NASA nail down how many refueling tankers will need to launch to enable a single Starship flight to the Moon.
SpaceX’s current estimate is approximately 10 refueling launches for one Artemis landing mission, but there are error bars on each side of this number.
“Folks want to know how many total of these tanker flights are you going to need,” Watson-Morgan said. “We’ve got our propellant transfer flight later this year. We certainly have predictions, but we’ll know how much fuel is it releasing, how long does this take, are we going to be as successful as the analysis says?
“We’re going to have to do this a few times,” she said. “We’re going to have to do the prop transfer flights more than once or twice or three times in my opinion. We’ve never done this before.”
The Starship will come in different configurations, such as the lunar lander, tanker, propellant depot, and satellite deployer. But they will all use the same basic design, with Raptor engines and stainless steel structures. The terms of NASA’s Starship lander contract calls for SpaceX to employ two Super Heavy boosters, four Starship tankers, one Starship depot, and one Starship lander for each Artemis launch campaign. SpaceX will also build a spare Super Heavy booster and two spare Starship tankers to support each Artemis mission, according to Watson-Morgan.
SpaceX will put the reusable Super Heavy boosters and Starship tankers into a rotation for a series of launches to fill up the Starship propellant depot in orbit. The company will demonstrate all this with the uncrewed Starship landing test flight prior to Artemis III. SpaceX will need at least two active Starship launch pads to make this possible.
“We’re doing an uncrewed demo, and they have to prove out their landing, and they go back up, and we may potentially have a re-landing,” Watson-Morgan said. “Before we take a crew on there, they’re going to have to successfully autonomously land this vehicle on the Moon.”
Once Starship gets to the Moon, the NASA astronauts will ride an elevator from their cabin near the top of the vehicle—towering some 164 feet (50 meters) above the ground—down to the lunar surface. NASA astronauts recently participated in a test of a prototype Starship elevator. “We’ve got a lot of work to do on that elevator, but we’ll get there,” Watson-Morgan said.
Landing such a tall spacecraft at a potentially uneven touchdown site near the Moon’s south pole has also raised questions about stability. Could Starship tip over? Watson-Morgan said this is “definitely one of the issues that we are concerned about” regarding Starship, but she added there’s good reason to have confidence in the design.
One factor in Starship’s stability upon landing is its center of gravity, which will depend on how much propellant the vehicle consumes during the flight to the Moon and on the final descent to the surface. Starship’s landing legs will also be able to articulate and compensate for uneven ground.
Musk said SpaceX is developing upgraded Starships, which he called Version 2 and Version 3, with “better performance and endurance.” Version 3 of Starship, in particular, will be a taller vehicle, extending the world’s largest rocket from its current height of 121 meters (397 feet) up to 140 meters (459 feet) or more.
The upgrades could also increase Starship’s payload lift capacity from roughly 100 metric tons to more than 200 metric tons per flight, Musk said.
It seems clear SpaceX’s initial plans for using Starship on an operational basis involve launching Starlink satellites and getting Starship to the Moon for NASA.
“In order for the Artemis program to succeed, we must succeed with Starship,” Musk said.