How Elon Musk’s Starship Timeline Has Changed Over Seven Years

As big as Starship is, it was originally going to be bigger.

In 2016, Elon Musk was dropping hints of a giant new spacecraft that would take people — lots of them — to Mars. He called it the Mars Colonial Transporter.

By the time he unveiled the design at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, the name had changed to a blander one: Interplanetary Transport System. It was gargantuan.

The booster, 40 feet in diameter and 254 feet tall, would be powered by 42 Raptor engines. The spaceship part was even wider, nearly 56 feet, as part of its design for gliding through atmospheres during re-entry.

Mr. Musk highlighted high-tech carbon composite fibers that would be used for much of the structure.

Inside, it would be roomy enough for 100 settlers heading to Mars for a new life on a new planet.

“What you saw there is very close to what we’ll actually build,” Mr. Musk said then, referring to the rockets and spacecraft he had just described.

Actually not.

A year later, the design had slimmed down by 25 percent, to 30 feet. The name changed, too, to B.F.R. (The “B” stood for “big,” the “R” for “rocket,” and Mr. Musk never publicly stated what the “F” stood for. Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, gamely and unconvincingly asserted that “F” stood for “Falcon,” a nod to SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 rockets.)

The smaller size would make it more practical for launching satellites, collecting debris from low-Earth orbit and making quick suborbital hops around the world for wealthy travelers in a hurry.

Details of the design shifted again and again. Landing legs were replaced by fins that doubled as landing legs. Then separate landing legs returned.

Mr. Musk jettisoned the carbon fiber composites and decided to make the spacecraft out of stainless steel instead. Steel is much cheaper and easier to work with, he said.

The name changed again, from B.F.R. to Starship.

By the time SpaceX started conducting high-altitude hops of Starship prototypes in 2020, the shape of the spacecraft had largely settled to what is now on the launchpad.

While the original Interplanetary Transport System looked sleekly futuristic — something that would have fit well with the aesthetic of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — Starship has evolved into a simpler, shinier shape that is almost retro, harking back to Buck Rogers and other mid-20th century sci-fi visions of the upcoming space age.

As the name and design have changed, so have Mr. Musk’s overly optimistic predictions for when his spaceship would get to Mars. At Guadalajara, he said the first flight of the Interplanetary Transport System to Mars, carrying cargo but not people, would take off in 2022 and that the first flight with people could launch in 2024.

Needless to say, no one is packing bags for a trip to Mars next year.

At an event in Boca Chica, Texas, in September 2019, Mr. Musk, standing in front of a shiny, stainless steel Starship prototype, proclaimed that an orbital test flight could occur within six months and that it was conceivable that a flight carrying people could take off sometime later in 2020.

That test flight of Starship and the Super Heavy booster originally promised for early 2020 might finally take off.

A Starship flight with people aboard remains further in the future.

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