WHITTINGTON: SpaceX’s Proposed Reusable Spaceship, StarHopper, Is A Work Of Art

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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SpaceX’s Elon Musk is as much a showman — and, to a certain extent, an artist — as he is a corporate CEO and engineering innovator.

When Musk launched his Falcon Heavy last year, he sent his used Tesla Roadster with a mannequin in the driver’s seat dubbed “Starman” into space. The image of the sports car with the Starman passenger flying into interplanetary space with the earth in the background was the most iconic of 2018, if not of the 21st century.

Fast-forward to December 2018 and continuing in 2019; we see that Musk is at it again. SpaceX is building a test article dubbed “StarHopper” for its proposed two-stage reusable spaceship dubbed the “Starship.”

StarHopper has a serious engineering purpose: testing liftoff, hovering and landing for the proposed much larger spacecraft. But it is also a work of art. It resembles nothing less than one of those retro rocketships that Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon flew into battle evil aliens in those 1930s serials. 1950s science fiction featured such spacecraft, especially the classic “Destination Moon.”

The image is derived from StarHopper’s bullet-like shape, the control fins on its stern, and especially the use of stainless steel, as Ars Technica notes. Modern rockets, especially SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicles, are built primarily of carbon composites because of their high strength and lightweight.

Musk chose stainless steel to build StarHopper because it performs slightly better than carbon composites at cold temperatures, worse at room temperatures and “vastly better” at high temperatures. The latter is the key.

Starship,” the part of SpaceX’s big rocket that will fly to the moon, Mars and beyond, will have to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and endure the high temperatures of air friction.

StarHopper, as it is being constructed, looks beautiful gleaming in the Texas sun. People have seem its like on TV and at the movies for decades. No one has seen such a thing in real life. When StarHopper finally lifts off for its test flights, it should look even more impressive.

Elon Musk has an aggressive development schedule for his new rocket ship, consisting of a lower stage called “Superheavy” and the upper stage Starship. After a series of orbital flights, SpaceX plans to send a Japanese billionaire named Yusaku Maezawa and a passenger list of artists around the moon.

NASA, which is using another architecture involving a lunar gateway and the super-heavy, super-expensive Space Launch System to return to the moon, would inevitably have to look at the Super Heavy/Starship as an alternative.

The rocket ship is the center of Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars. He plans to use the spacecraft to start sending material and eventually people to the Red Planet in the early to mid-2020s, ten years before NASA contemplates expeditions to Mars.

In addition to being able to fly to various destinations in space, the big rocket is said to be able to transport dozens of people to the moon, Mars, and elsewhere. The most people anyone has been able to launch into space at a time has been seven people on the space shuttle, and then only to low Earth orbit.

Elon Musk may not succeed in his dream of building a true space ship.  Given his track record, though, no one should bet against him accomplishing what he has set out to do. The same track record suggests that he may succeed later than he thinks.

Even so, if and when SpaceX does succeed, it will have created a piece of technology that will change the course of history. Science fiction has depicted a future of humanity as a multi-planet species for many decades. The Super Heavy/Starship rocket would be the instrument that could give that dream form.

And Elon Musk’s rocket ship will look beautiful as it takes off on a tail of fire, shining from the reflected light of the sun, as it soars toward space.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is it So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.