What is SpaceX doing in South Texas?

Something is happening at the SpaceX space port in Boca Chica in far South Texas that could change the world. Space News reports that a test article of the Big Falcon Rocket’s upper stage, dubbed “Starship,” is under construction at the SpaceX launch facility. The test rocket will be as wide as the operational Starship rocket but not as tall.

Piecing together the test vehicle in late 2018 is significant because test flights, essentially hops into the air and back, may happen earlier than expected. Previously, SpaceX had announced that the hop-test flights would occur in late 2019. Now the Starship test article may fly as early as April 2019.

Another interesting detail is that the test Starship is being fabricated from stainless steel and not a carbon composite, which modern rocket ships tend to be made of.

“That metal,” the CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk told Space News, “is stainless steel, in particular a family of alloys called 300 Series, known to maintain its strength at high temperatures.” Despite being heavier than carbon composites, Musk said that stainless steel offered ‘slightly better’ strength-to-weight performance at cryogenic temperatures, needed for the vehicle’s liquid oxygen propellant tanks, and was “vastly better” at high temperatures. He acknowledged that steel was worse than carbon composite at room temperatures.

To surface the vehicle in stainless steel, he added, would require “much less” thermal protection but also would not be painted. “Skin will get too hot for paint,” he tweeted. ‘Stainless mirror finish. Maximum reflectivity.’”

The test article will be powered by three Raptor engines, designed to burn methane and liquid oxygen. The Raptors will run so hot that SpaceX had to develop a special alloy to handle both the heat and the pressure. The full-sized Starship will use seven of the advanced rocket engines. The first stage of the Big Falcon Rocket, dubbed “Super Heavy,” will fly with 31 Raptors.

Musk has ambitious plans for his new rocket. By 2023 he intends to send the Starship around the moon with a Japanese billionaire named Yusaku Maezawa and a group of invited artists as passengers. But a year earlier than that, Musk plans to send two of his rocket ships uncrewed to Mars to start setting up a propellant plant and a base. In 2024, SpaceX plans to send four rocket ships to Mars, two uncrewed and two with the first colonists to head for the Red Planet.

Observers of SpaceX have noted that Musk tends to be optimistic where schedules are concerned. The Falcon Heavy was five years late when it finally launched for the first time in February 2018. Rocket science is a synonym for something that is incredibly difficult for a reason.

On the other hand, Musk tends to eventually accomplish what he sets out to do. He has made the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable so that the cost of flying the launch vehicle is much less than those of his competitors. The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to become operational in 2019.

In other words, even if Elon Musk is a few years late launching Maezawa around the moon or sending people to Mars, no one should bet against him accomplishing both. Musk is sometimes noted for bizarre tweets and arresting behavior, such as the time he smoked pot during a podcast. But he is, if anything, a mad genius. Which part of that phrase is more dominant remains to be seen.

If NASA is smart, and the space agency does have a pretty sharp leader in Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineApollo 11: How millennials can grasp the greatest event ever — for now Hillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction NASA: Plan to send US back to the moon may be delayed without private rockets MORE, it should watch what Musk is doing in South Texas with great interest. SpaceX may well upend NASA’s careful, “sustainable” plans to go back to the moon and on to Mars by developing the capability to do both far earlier than anyone has a right to expect.

The Big Falcon Rocket, with its Super Heavy and Starship stages, may become the ocean-going caravel of the space age. Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator developed that sailing vessel to reach the spice markets of India. Christopher Columbus used caravels to sail west across the Atlantic and, quite by accident, to discover America. What will future explorers do with the rocket ship that the modern Prince Henry is building to open the space frontier?

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”