The long-term goal of SpaceX’s interplanetary spacecraft Starship is to develop a reusable space transportation system that can carry passengers, satellites, and cargo weighing more than 220,462 pounds into orbit. It was built using Raptor, the world’s first flight-proven reusable metal ox staged-combustion engine, in order to assist populate Mars or carry out whatever other missions may lay beyond the final frontier.
As part of the Artemis 3 mission, which is scheduled to arrive at the lunar south pole in 2025, NASA will use Starship for its first crewed lunar lander.
It is typical for designs to alter and develop throughout time. The goal of testing is to identify any problems. Such was the situation with Space X’s first Falcon 1 flight, which was unsuccessful simply due to the rocket being exposed to sea air for too long, an aluminum nut failing due to rust, and the rocket catching fire.
Sometimes the original idea is altered for financial reasons. Originally intended to be built of carbon fiber, the hull of the somewhat unimaginatively called spacecraft “Starship” (hopefully not being commanded by a Captain Obvious) is breathtakingly futuristic.
“Popular Mechanics,” a veteran publication with a concentration on science and technology, spoke with Elon Musk in January 2019. He said during the interview that stainless steel will be used for the hull of the Starship rather than carbon fiber since it was less expensive. But there were some other advantages as well.
Musk claims that carbon fiber is very expensive, costing around $135 per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds). Additionally, the cutting and shaping procedure alone lost up to 35% of the material, which was then thrown away. In the end, SpaceX was spending more than $200 per kilogram of carbon fiber material. At around $3 per kg, stainless steel is more affordable than a Starbucks brewer’s coffee pods (via Space).
Additionally, stainless steel is a stronger material for the heat it would experience upon reentry due to its significantly higher melting point. Approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit is the “steady-state working temperature” of carbon fiber, according to Musk, with some forms reaching 400 degrees.
You can continue beyond that, but only for a short period of time before it begins to deteriorate and get weaker. The material stainless steel is resistant to heat up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (via Space).
Choosing the shinier, much less costly, and more robust material was ultimately a no-brainer for the business. And sure, it eerily resembles the 1930s starship from Flash Gordon. or a silo for grains. But does it really matter if it takes you into space?