SpaceX erected its first few Starship prototypes out of the 301 stainless steel alloy. This metallic compound has been used by ‘rocket builders’ since the middle of the last century, and it’s time for SpaceX to make a change, Elon Musk said.
“We should be able to do better in the 2020s than they did in, like, the ’50s, you know?” Musk said during a keynote conversation at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, D.C. “So, I think we’ll start switching away from 301 maybe in the next month or two.”
Standing in front of a gleaming full-scale prototype of SpaceX’s new interplanetary craft—known as Starship—Elon Musk posed a simple question: Do we want a future where humanity is out among the stars, or do we want to be forever confined to Earth?
Musk said would prefer the former. “I think we should do our very best to become a multiplanetary species and extend consciousness beyond Earth, and we should do it now,” he said before a crowd gathered at the company’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, not far from the Gulf of Mexico.
Stainless steel is much cheaper than the carbon-fiber material that SpaceX initially aimed to use for Starship and Super Heavy, and the metal has other important advantages as well, Musk stressed. For example, stainless steel handles heating far better than carbon composites do, he said.
And that’s crucial for the reusable Starship and Super Heavy, both of which will be making many highly energetic trips through Earth’s atmosphere, both up and down.
Rapid and frequent reusability is key to SpaceX’s long-term vision. The company aims to slash the cost of spaceflight so much that Mars colonization and other ambitious exploration feats become economically feasible and the only way to do that is to fly the same hardware over and over again, Musk has said.
Starship is “being designed to be relaunched an hour after landing, with zero nominal work,” he said. “The only thing you expect to change on a regular basis is propellant.”
The steel switch is in keeping with SpaceX’s Starship development strategy, which features frequent iteration and testing to zero in on the best design. Nobody knows when Starship will be ready to launch people toward Mars, but Musk has a nebulous deadline in mind.
“I hope I’m not dead by the time people go to Mars,” the 48-year-old billionaire said. “That would be a great outcome, I think.”