SpaceX is set to show off its Starship Mk1, an orbital-scale prototype of the spacecraft it eventually plans to use to attain its goal of fully reusable commercial spaceflight. Starship is the key ingredient not only to fully reusable launch and cargo vehicles for serving commercial clients; it’s also the next most important step in SpaceX and Elon Musk’s audacious plan to get humans to Mars and sow the seeds that will help us become an interplanetary species.
Starship Mk1 is the evolution of the first flight vehicle that SpaceX used to test technologies for Starship – the Starhopper, a stub-top cylinder that basically just provided a way to test one of the Raptor engines in two low-altitude ‘hop’ flights. The Starhopper’s mission may be over, but it’s still present in Boca Chica, Texas, sitting out just behind the Starship Mk1 and just a mile or less from the end of the road, and the Gulf.
Starship Mk1 is a towering structure in person, and its gleaming high-polish shell can be blinding in the South Texas sun when there’s no cloud cover. The final effect is like a 1950s science-fiction pulp novel cover made real, with a scale that’s hard to understand even standing directly in front of the thing and seeing workers busy putting the final touches on the rocket’s exterior ahead of SpaceX’s update event tonight, where it’ll talk more about this prototype design, and what comes next for Starship’s development.
When I arrived on the ground in Brownsville, I made the short drive out to SpaceX’s assembly site for the Mk1 in the small community of Boca Chica. It was well after sunset, but the roughly 180-ft tall structure was lit up by a number of floodlights, as crews continued to work on interior welds and other parts of final assembly. Notably, about half the structure had its shiny, glossy outer finish, while the rest remained rougher looking – something which would change by morning.
Tall construction cranes lifted workers to the parts of the spacecraft they were working on, including a few ports dotting the surface which are large enough for a person to crawl through, even though they appear small relative to the size of the rocket overall. The top nose cone of the Starship Mk1 was still attached to a crane at this point, too, before that supporting structure was removed sometime before morning.
Returning the next day, the Starship was more easily visible from afar – I spotted it about 10 miles out. The shining stainless steel structure was much shinier than the night before, looking more like a complete and finished spacecraft. The bottom wings near the base were connected to the body with cladding that increases aerodynamics – while the top fins were attached at only a couple of points. Both sets of fins will move rapidly during entry and landing in order to control stability of the spacecraft, which is a key ingredient in its ability to be reflow multiple times.
Workers were still busy in the morning putting the final touches on the rocket, including working on placing the top cap on to the very tip of the nose cone. The domed tip was actually rounded, not pointy, which is probably better for helping bleed off drag when the rocket is making its way back to Earth.
The final structure is indeed incredibly impressive. The scale, as mentioned, is hard to grasp, which is why I tried to capture as many shots as possible with people in frame to give a sense of Starship’s overall size. Remember too that this is just the top portion of what will eventually be SpaceX’s Starship launch system, which will include the Super Heavy booster to deliver extra thrust for carrying large cargo to orbit. The base of the Starship Mk1 alone is roughly 30 ft in diameter, which is about half the size of the largest semi-trailer transport trucks on the road.
SpaceX’s event today isn’t just about revealing this rocket – Starship Mk1 is actually really easy to access via public road, and you can get surprisingly close. But it’ll probably get another round of spit and polish prior to tonight’s update from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk – and we’ll hear lots more about next steps for the Starship program, including timelines for its first suborbital tests (which will involve flying to above airline cruising speed) and which could start quite soon. Plus, we might hear more about Musk’s more ambitious goals for Starship, including super-fast upper atmosphere passenger flights, and its first forays to planets beyond our own.
We’ll have updates live as they happen here on TechCrunch, and the event should start at around 7 PM CDT (8 PM EDT/5 PM PDT).