Elon Musk says Starship is now SpaceX's top priority

Darrell Etherington

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk says that after accomplishing its first human launch, the company's primary focus going forward will be developing Starship, its next-generation spacecraft. According to an internal email seen by CNBC, Musk said that Starship is job one for the company, with the exception of ensuring that everything goes well with the forthcoming return of the Crew Dragon capsule from the International Space Station, which will be carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on their homeward bound trip.

Starship has been in development at a SpaceX production and testing site in Boca Chica, Texas, since 2019, and was also originally being developed by a second team in parallel in Florida. SpaceX combined the efforts and focused prototype builds in Texas late last year and has been building a number of Starship prototypes using a model of rapid iteration.

The spacecraft is designed to be a fully reusable vehicle that can support both crew and cargo configurations that can make trips to both Earth orbit and deep space destinations including the moon and Mars when paired with the forthcoming SpaceX Super Heavy rocket booster. SpaceX eventually wants to replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with Starship, which should reduce costs by unifying its production lines and offering full reusability.

Thus far, development of the Starship has met with a number of challenges. After early successful testing of the Raptor engine that will power it, using a subscale prototype called the "Starhopper." SpaceX has been building full-scale test vehicles, but each of those has so far succumbed to some failure during testing, either of its fuel compartments during pressure testing, or, most recently, shortly after a static fire test of its engine. SpaceX is now assembling SN5, the fifth prototype of Starship, to continue its testing — even while SN6 and SN7 are also under construction.

Musk says in the email seen by CNBC that SpaceX employees should "consider spending significant time" at its Boca Chica development site to help with the vehicle's development. The company now has a bit more time pressure driving Starship's development, since it was selected as one of three suppliers for NASA's human lunar lander contracts, with Starship intended to act as a last-mile transportation system for taking astronauts from NASA's Lunar Gateway to the surface of the moon.

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