SpaceX’s Starship, the tallest spacecraft ever built, is widely known as the rocket to one day colonize Mars. However, despite SpaceX’s aggressive testing of Starship prototypes, it will likely take decades before the first human lands on the Red Planet. Until then, Starship will be used for many less ambitious space missions to help offset its hefty development costs (SpaceX has spent about $5 billion on the project so far) and achieve other space exploration goals for scientists.
Unlike other interplanetary rockets, such as NASA’s SLS, SpaceX’s approach with Starship is testing small prototypes for low altitudes and gradually building them up. Currently, the company is testing a 400-foot rocket prototype aiming for Earth’s orbit—a key step before it goes further in space. Once successful, Starship will fly regular orbital missions for SpaceX and potentially its clients, including NASA. As the rocket’s capability advances, it’s expected to fly astronauts and tourists to the moon.
Four future space missions that will involve Starship
Delivering Starlink satellites
Once its orbital test completes, SpaceX has indicated that Starship will replace its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket to regularly launch Starlink satellites to space. Starlink satellites deliver high-speed internet globally, including to remote areas with limited access to traditional fiber-optic internet. To date, SpaceX has launched more than 4,000 Starlink satellites at 60 per batch using Falcon 9. Launching future Starlink satellites with Starship will lower the program’s per-launch cost, thanks to Starship’s large cargo capacity. In turn, profits from Starlink will cover some of Starship’s development costs, Morgan Stanley said in a 2021 report.
Landing astronauts on the moon
In April 2021, SpaceX won a $2.89 billion NASA contract to develop a spacecraft for landing astronauts on the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis III mission. The lander will be launched by a Starship rocket. (Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin was awarded a $3.4 billion NASA contract to build a competing spacecraft two years later.)
Under its contract, SpaceX is expected to deliver the lunar lander in late 2025. But after Starship’s first orbital test flight, NASA estimated the timeline could be delayed to 2026 considering SpaceX’s test progress.
Each lunar lander mission requires launching multiple Starship rockets, including the lander itself and several “tanker” Starships to refuel the lander in Earth orbit. “That’s a lot of launches to get those missions done,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said during a space conference on June 7. “They have a significant number of launches to go, and that, of course, gives me concern about the December of 2025 date.”
In 2018, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa put down an undisclosed deposit to be the first customer of SpaceX’s lunar tourism program, DearMoon. Under his agreement with SpaceX, Maezawa will board a Starship rocket when it’s ready for a weeklong trip around the moon.
Billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman has also purchased a flight on a future Starship rocket to conduct a spacewalk in a mission called Polaris Dawn.
Replacing commercial air travel
Back in 2017, Musk floated the idea of using space rockets for high-speed transportation on Earth. He proposed that Starship, which was still in the concept stage, could replace commercial aircraft in long-haul international travel and fly between any two points in the world in under an hour.
“Most of what people consider to be long-distance trips would be completed in less than half an hour,” Musk said at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia in September 2017. According to Musk’s design, Starship can transport passengers from New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes, Los Angeles to Honolulu in 25 minutes and London to Dubai in exact 29 minutes.
In January 2022, SpaceX was awarded a $102 million, five-year contract from the U.S. Space Force to develop a system called Cargo Rocket to deliver military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world.