The relatively small American company SpaceX was founded in 2002 by the famous Elon Musk, who is also its CEO and chief engineer. He immediately announced the company's incredibly ambitious goal of populating other planets.
For a very short time of its existence, the company has achieved tremendous success in the field of space activities, having developed and put into operation the Falcon 1 (Falcon 1 - Falcon 1), Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles with 1 and 2 stages. system of global satellite Internet Starlink ("Starlink"), as well as manned and cargo spacecraft Dragon ("Dragon" - "dragon") for flights to the orbital space station and tourist flights.
At the same time, according to SpaceX, for more than 10 years the company has been working on its main project Starship ("Starship" - "starship"), which will make possible the colonization of the solar system. In mid-August 2021, Musk announced that the Starship's first orbital flight would take place “in the coming weeks”! However, the paucity and inconsistency of official reports about the details of this project raises serious questions, the answers to which are unknown. In this article, we will look at some of them.
Briefly about the project
The project provides for the creation of a universal reusable space transport system of extra-large payload, capable of delivering goods and people from one point of the Earth to another, from Earth to low-Earth orbit, to the Moon, to Mars and back. Moreover, the cost of such transportation should be several times, or even tens (!) Times less than when using "traditional of technologies».
The basis of the system is a two-stage rocket with one Super Heavy stage I block and a second stage, which is also a ship, since it is launched into space and has compartments for placing a payload or people. This stage, like the entire rocket, is also called Starship. Ships for different applications should be different, but have a very high degree of unification. The propulsion systems for both stages use SpaceX's specially designed Raptor engines that run on liquefied oxygen and methane.
Despite the fact that the implementation of this most complex project is clearly at an early stage, the company's management says that the first "cargo" flight to Mars will take place in the 2020s.
Features of the information work of the SpaceX company
As it is easy to see, the PR activities of SpaceX as a whole have a pronounced shocking connotation, which causes the expected emotional reaction from a significant part of the public. In particular, events with deliberately unrealistic dates are almost constantly announced. This game on the brink of a foul has not yet generally led to a drop in popular interest.
At the same time, SpaceX does not consider it necessary to devote the public to all the details of its plans and their changes, as, for example, it is customary to demand from NASA. The status of a "private trader" allows her to largely hide her real plans, while maintaining a public image of a fairly open and attractive company.
At the same time, when submitting information to the "outside world", a rational, scientific and technical language is often used, which, on the contrary, operates with the categories of cold reason and objective knowledge.
Rational and irrational approaches to public relations are diametrically opposed, but their combined use produces a synergistic effect that perfectly supports the image of Musk's "techie" in the eyes of the general public. This style is generally characteristic of this man, who fully revealed him at SpaceX, becoming one of the leading public figures. At the same time, the incompleteness of explanations of certain conceptual and particular technical solutions is compensated by an affectively charged general background, as well as by the authority of the company and its owner. This authority is confirmed by the results already achieved.
Thanks to the combined effect of these factors, a large group of Elon Musk admirers has formed in different countries of the world. Many of them behave like followers of the sect and almost idolize him, despite the fact that SpaceX has not yet achieved anything new in space exploration. However, a large number of skeptics have appeared who understand that the complexity of the Starship project is incomparably higher than those that were solved earlier. For these people, not all the decisions of the Starship project are clear, and some of them generally seem to be an outright bluff.
Thus, some people believe in the feasibility of the project, while others do not. The lack and inconsistency of official information makes it difficult to conduct sufficiently reasoned disputes on this topic.
Some oddities of the project
First, let's talk about the main, general, oddity of the Starship project. It provides for the creation of a cheap universal reusable space transport system, which will provide fundamentally new opportunities. But at the same time he does not propose to use any fundamentally new, more effective, technical solutions (the use of methane as a fuel does not "save" the weight and rise in the cost of the system caused by its reusability, versatility, etc.).
Now we will consider the logic and sequence of project implementation, which are not only not traditional for complex technical projects, but also often do not lend themselves to logical comprehension, which is aggravated by constant changes in the appearance of the transport system and the timing of achieving certain stages, as well as unclear or contradictory statements by SpaceX officials ...
For comparison, we can cite a project similar in complexity (but with much more modest goals) - the creation of the Space Shuttle system. During the development period, the concept of the system has been actively evolving over several years and was finally approved in 1972. Further, for about eight years, there was an intensive implementation of the adopted project, including the development of a rocket and space system and the creation (in some places - modernization) of ground infrastructure. This process required the attraction and creation of a huge number of scientific, technical and industrial resources of the United States. The material base of the system continued to be created after the start of flights. The Space Shuttle program has become the most expensive American astronautics project.
The evolution of the Starship system concept entered the public stage in 2010 (approximately eight years after the company's foundation), after which it underwent dramatic changes for another nine years. Immediately after this (more precisely, even a little earlier), a series of "flight tests" of many "prototypes" of the ship began, which continues to this day. These "prototypes" are actually the cheapest full-size mock-ups, the most expensive part of which are engines. All models are equipped with a minimum number of engines, refueling does not exceed 1/3 of the standard one. Almost every test ends with the destruction of the design of the model, which does not prevent the company from declaring it successful.
Apparently, in these flights, the operation of the engines in different modes is being worked out (including working out the rocking of the engines in two planes in flight conditions); control of the apparatus in the areas of ascent and landing (it is carried out with the help of engines); and also the measurement of mechanical stresses arising in the body of the apparatus from static and dynamic loads during flight.
The production of model tanks and their final assembly are deployed practically in the field: in the open air or in light shelters, with a minimum of equipment and rigging.
But even with the cheapest possible manufacture of model hulls, this method of testing engines and control systems seems strange. Not only because of its uniqueness, but also for the reason economic and technical irrationality. If only because the engines in this case are practically doomed, which requires a much larger number of them at the stage of development (despite the fact that prototypes, as a rule, are several times more expensive than serial copies), and can also greatly complicate their defect detection (investigation of the state after tests).
Until now, the flying mock-ups were made in the form of the II stage - the Starship spacecraft. In the summer of 2021, a prototype of the Super Heavy stage I was assembled, and a static fire test of its engines was performed on the launch pad. SpaceX promises to carry out an "orbital launch" (!) Of a two-stage complex "within the coming weeks."
Special attention should be paid to the sustainer liquid-propellant rocket engine (LPRE) of both stages of the Raptor, which is created by SpaceX itself (after the liquid-propellant rocket engine Merlin for Falcon series rockets).
The fact is that the most perfect scheme was chosen for this engine in terms of fuel economy: with afterburning of generator gas, with full gasification of the components before being fed into the main combustion chamber (gas-gas scheme) with high pressure; with separate turbopump units and separate gas generators for them, one of which is oxidizing, the second is reducing.
This scheme was theoretically known back in the 1960s of the last century, but the rocket engines of the two leading space superpowers with their enormous scientific and technical potential have not been able to translate it into a proven design over the past decades. Therefore, it is extremely surprising that this problem was solved by a young small company in just a few years.
The complexity of the task is aggravated by the use of a new fuel pair "liquid oxygen - liquid methane", which gives the rocket an energy advantage over the pair "liquid oxygen - kerosene", but creates certain difficulties in the development of the engine. In addition, this rocket engine must be reusable! And there is practically no reason at all to believe in the company's statement that such an engine for some reason will be much cheaper than simpler analogues.
For comparison, the concept of the Merlin engine, created by SpaceX earlier, looks quite appropriate: an oxygen-kerosene LPRE with an "open" circuit (without afterburning generator gas) with moderate pressure in the combustion chamber. But the creation of such an engine in just a few years is a very great achievement for the new company.
Thus, the phenomenon of the birth in SpaceX of an ultra-perfect, reliable, reusable and cheap methane "Raptor" defies logical comprehension. To complement the real picture, it must be said that the Raptor has not yet been finalized and, according to available data, not a single sample of it in bench tests has yet come close to achieving the declared resource at rated thrust.
In addition to the above, the lack of a full-fledged launch complex is noteworthy. First of all, there is no significant system for exhausting gases flowing out of the 7st stage engines during their operation. Great importance is always attached to the reliable removal of gases from a launching rocket in order to exclude their effect on it and prevent it from overturning. The larger the rocket, the more important this problem is. As you know, a huge pit 45 meters deep was dug to remove the gases of the R-1 rocket (and launch vehicles based on it). Launch complexes of super-heavy rockets (Saturn V / Space Shuttle, N-XNUMX, Energia) had cyclopean gas exhaust systems.
The dimensions of the Super Heavy / Starship rocket and space complex and the gas flow of its engines at launch correspond to super-heavy launch vehicles, but SpaceX claims that only a kind of "stool" (with an opening in the seat) with a height of only about 20 meters will be used to launch a full-size rocket ...
It would be possible to continue listing and analyzing the technical and organizational oddities of this project, but those already considered are quite enough to consider that it has hidden goals that are different from those stated.
So, we come to the conclusion that the Starship project contains many mysteries, the analysis of which suggests that it has hidden goals that have nothing to do with the officially declared ones.
Future events are likely to make the picture clearer.