Elon Musk shows off Starship prototype progress

SpaceX’s prototype Starship spacecraft the company plans to use for manned trips to the Moon and Mars are coming closer to completion.

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Billionaire company founder Elon Musk tweeted a pair of photos this week apparently showing progress on one of the Starship prototypes SpaceX is currently developing.

SpaceX has said it plans to use the rockets to shuttle passengers and cargo across the planet or beyond it.

“Droid Junkyard, Tatooine,” Musk wrote in the first tweet, making a joking “Star Wars” reference.

“Area 51 of Area 51,” he joked in the second.

The Starships are designed to be a reusable craft that will carry people across the Earth at record speeds, and bring goods and passengers as far as the Moon and Mars. They’ll be powered by several of the company’s Raptor engines, which underwent a successful test with its Starhopper test vehicle late last month. One of the engines lifted the vehicle about 500 feet, and then it landed on a nearby landing pad.

The company is working on an aggressive timeline. It aims to reach Mars by 2022 and bring a crew there two years later. SpaceX is also tentatively scheduled to begin transporting passengers as soon as 2023, with the Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa booked on a trip to the Moon then.

But outsider observers should take that schedule with a grain of salt, according to Laura Forczyk, the founder of space consulting firm Astralytica. However, she added that the fact that SpaceX has actually been testing hardware does lend credibility to their plans — even if they may not come to fruition as quickly as some have hoped.

“I do see it happening eventually,” she said.

SpaceX began working on reusable rockets at a time when others thought it would never be economically feasible. Successfully operating the Starship rockets the way SpaceX has planned would be “a game-changer,” according to Forczyk.

“That would be something the space community has never seen before,” she said.

Keeping aspirational goals like that timeline has helped fuel SpaceX’s success so far, Forczyk said. So has Musk’s decision to fund the company himself and with government contracts.

Musk’s showmanship — like when SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster toward the sun — has also helped draw top talent to the company, according to Forczyk.

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk congratulates teams competing on the Hyperloop Pod Competition II at SpaceX's Hyperloop track in Hawthorne, Calif. A committee of the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, (AP)

“That is the kind of style and pizazz … we have not seen coming from other aerospace companies,” she said.

SpaceX has also taken an unusual approach to get those employees to perform by pitting them against each other in a friendly competition. One team in Texas and another in Florida are each responsible for building their own Starship prototype, with the two groups racing to beat each other while also sharing information.

“That seems to have worked well,” Forczyk said.

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Musk has said the company is next aiming for a 20-kilometer Starship test flight in October and they will attempt to get into orbit after that. He’s scheduled to give an official update on Sept. 28.