Now, Musk displayed a completed 50-meter-tall “Mark 1” version of the Starship, with three engines and a more traditional rocket body, displayed next to the company’s first rocket, the Falcon 1. He said that sometime in the next two months, it would fly to an altitude of 20 km before returning to ground for a soft landing.

On the left, the prototype Starship. On the right, an unflown Falcon 1.
On the left, the prototype Starship. On the right, an unflown Falcon 1.
Image: Quartz/Tim Fernholz

Musk said that after both work sites had completed two versions of the Starship, they would begin work on the booster required for regular operations. Right now, he said, his company is making one of the engines for the ship, called a Raptor, every eight to 10 days, and hoped to be making one a day sometime in the first quarter of next year. Each Starship will be powered by six Raptors, while the booster will require as many as 37.

The rocket is designed to return to earth in an extreme maneuver, with Musk comparing it to a skydiver. After entering the atmosphere, it falls downward on its belly, before flipping back at an angle to use its rockets to land gently. Given the explosive trial and error required to teach the Falcon boosters to return safely to earth, this new method is likely to resulting in some spectacular tests.

There’s still much to learn before the rocket will go into use, however. Asked about the kind of life-support system required by the vehicle or the number of crew it would support, Musk suggested that more work would need to be done developing efficient mechanisms to recycle oxygen and water. For its biggest plans of seeding a city on Mars or a scientific base on the Moon, the company will need to perfect a technique for refueling the spacecraft in orbit, which it has practiced in part by docking it spacecraft with the International Space Station.

While Musk is promising super-fast development, past experience says the rocket is unlikely to fly to orbit or beyond in the next year. Still, he says this prototype was built in just five months, a rapid pace, and that the design was only finalized in October 2018.

The Starship is the largest of several heavy rockets under development in the US. Jeff Bezos’s space company is developing the New Glenn, which it hopes to debut in 2021. Boeing is building the Space Launch System for NASA, which is about to begin a final period of integrated testing ahead of a hoped-for first flight also expected in 2021.

Correction: This piece originally misreported the number of Raptor engines intended to power the Starship, which is six.

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