Starship: perché la nave spaziale di Elon Musk è una follia

Alla scoperta di Starship, la "follia" progettuale di SpaceX che potrebbe cambiare per sempre le sorti dell'esplorazione spaziale

Starship è la nave spaziale più grande mai costruita: per la sua progettazione, e per i vari test che si spera condurranno SpaceX e l’umanità sulla Luna e su Marte, è stata addirittura creata una città da zero.

Il quartier generale di Starship si chiama Starbase, e si trova in quel di Boca Chica, nel Texas del Sud. È lì che in questi giorni il prototipo numero venti dI SpaceX ha effettuato il suo primo test statico dei motori.
Ed è a Starbase che diventa ogni giorno più chiaro perché il progetto di Elon Musk sia una follia, una di quelle in grado di cambiare per sempre il corso degli eventi.

Starship: humanity's door open to Mars

The design of a super-heavy cargo launch vehicle capable of flying beyond Earth orbit and taking humans to the Moon and Mars began in 2012, in the offices of SpaceX.

Elon Musk's now-familiar method - "fail fast to succeed faster" - has led to countless changes in names, technologies, engines, materials and landing systems. In short: Starship's first partial prototype, StarHopper, was completed in 2019, and we're already on prototype number 20.

It's hard to imagine faster progress, especially given the iterative approach always advocated by the design engineer of the largest spacecraft ever built, Dr. Elon Musk.

Despite now awaiting a ruling from the FAA (the Federal Aviation Administration) on whether to proceed with the first orbital flight, expected by the end of 2021, the Starship project is at a turning point.

The idea of carbon fiber for the more solid stainless steel, only to discover that without the special hexagonal tiles the spacecraft would have no chance of surviving a re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, today Starship is almost complete.

NASA has selected a particular version of Starship as one of the lunar landing systems planned by the Artemis program. But Elon Musk's spacecraft, in addition to being a true monster of aerospace engineering with its 120 meters of height, adopts solutions never seen before in the field of space exploration and rocket construction.

The "follies" of Starship

Like the well-known Falcon9, and according to one of the explicit priorities of SpaceX, Starship will be completely reusable. And we come to Emperor Musk's first folly: to ensure a rapid reuse of the ship once back to Earth, SpaceX is building giant robotic wands capable of "picking it up" on re-entry to immediately place it back on its already fueled booster.

The huge robotic system, which weighs over 100 tons and is in these days making its gradual appearance on the launch pad of Starbase, is called Mechazilla and will have - as far as we know - huge robotic arms capable of hooking and unhooking Starship if necessary. Elon Musk talks about an approach that aims to match the comfort and safety of air travel, a bit like Virgin Galactic's more humble design intentions.

But how will Starship return to Earth to be finally embraced by Mechazilla's robotic grip? By gut. Forget for a moment the classic image of the rocket re-entering the Earth's atmosphere: SpaceX has thought of it differently.

Starship's landing maneuver involves a "belly flip": at about 500 feet above the ground, the spacecraft positions itself horizontally, only to return to a vertical position a few feet above the ground and land upright, like the Falcon9.

The rollover maneuver has been the subject of several tests, among the absolute most impressive visions offered by the renewed space race, and is a unique maneuver - of a complexity never experienced in the aerospace industry, especially if you think of it associated with the Mechazilla "collection" system.

But Elon Musk's genius madness doesn't stop: for Starship won't be used "classic" engines that make space crafts already in use, but 31 Raptor engines - obviously still in testing phase. SpaceX's Raptor could become the first orbital methane engine to pass the experimental phase. A record within records.

Starship is designed for long-duration spaceflight, transportation to the Moon and Mars, long-distance commercial travel to Earth, orbiting the Moon and refueling in space and departing for Mars.

Starship is literally insane: a compendium of unprecedented technologies so original as to hint at a few suggestions from AI and colleagues, a project still in development that could quickly change space exploration forever, and open up the real possibility of achieving in the coming decades the status, often evoked by Musk, of an interplanetary humanity.