“We are expecting our license approval from the FAA around the end of this year,” he said. “So that probably means a launch attempt in January or perhaps February. … We intend to do hopefully a dozen launches next year, maybe more. …We intend to complete the test flight program next year, which means that it’s probably ready for valuable payloads that are not for testing but actual, real payloads in 2023.”
Musk delivered the announcement in a virtual meeting with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Space Studies Board. He discussed his vision and purpose for the company as well as the risks to life on Earth, including climate change, comet strikes, nuclear Armageddon, high-mortality pandemics, artificial intelligence, declining birth rates and religious extremism.
“Eventually, something will happen to Earth, hopefully not soon, either natural or manmade that would cause the end of civilization,” he said. “The probable lifespan of civilization is much greater if we are a multi-planet species and ultimately even go beyond our solar system.”
Starship’s purpose, he said, is to establish a human presence on other planets, namely Mars, to preserve the “Delicate candle of consciousness flickering in the darkness.”
According to Musk, progress on that front is rapidly underway. The first orbital booster and ship are complete, and the launch pad and tower will finish later this month. Testing will be conducted in December, and if SpaceX receives FAA regulatory approval, Starship should launch into orbit in January. However, he is not entirely optimistic about the mission.
“There is a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful,” he said. “But I think we’ll make a lot of progress. And then we’ve also built a factory for making a lot of these vehicles, so this is not a case of just one or two. We’re aiming to make a great many. Ultimately, in order for life to become multi-planetary, we’ll need maybe a thousand ships.”
Even if the first orbital launch fails, he added that he is “confident” one will succeed sometime in 2022.
Starship is the largest rocket ever built, reaching nearly 400 ft in height when mounted atop the Super Heavy booster. SpaceX has performed short test flights from its facilities at Starbase in South Texas, some of which have exploded spectacularly, but the upcoming launch will be the first time Starship is to reach Earth orbit.
Musk guessed that SpaceX would begin selling Starship launches at a price 5-10 times cheaper than that of Falcon 9 “probably two years from now.”
SpaceX scored the NASA contract to provide the lunar lander for the Artemis Program, but Musk’s vision looks even further. With Starship’s capacity for large quantities of cargo and people, he said, it could help establish a “permanently occupied base on the Moon.”
After the Moon, Musk’s next stop is Mars. He aims to land a crewed mission there by the end of the decade, though two or three uncrewed ships will make trips first to ensure mission safety. Ultimately, he said, “Starship is designed to be a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system.”
“If we are able to at least be a multi-planetary species within our solar system,” he said, “then hopefully we can develop the technology to send probes to other star systems and eventually maybe send people, although that’s tough. But we can certainly send robot probes to the nearby star systems and try to figure out what’s the meaning of life and are there any aliens out there?”