Slides & animations from Starship 2024 update presentation by Elon Musk

SpaceX Starship

Starship Super Heavy (previously known as Big Falcon Rocket, Interplanetary Transport System and Mars Colonial Transporter) is a fully reusable two-stage super heavy-lift launch vehicle and spacecraft currently being developed by leading NewSpace company SpaceX. Starship will be capable to lift up to 200 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) when fully reused or up to 300 metric tons to LEO if expended. The Super Heavy booster stage will be used only to boost the Starship from Earth. This rocket will eventually replace all of SpaceX's launch vehicles (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) and spacecrafts (Dragon and Crew Dragon) currently in use.

On November 2018 Elon Musk announced "Big Falcon Rocket" (shortened as BFR) has been renamed to "Starship" for the spacecraft part and to "Super Heavy" for the booster part. Will see if the naming stands as it has been changed several times.

Here is an excellent article covering in great technical detail the development history of Starship from early concepts to the end of 2020.

The main purpose of building such a large rocket is to enable the colonization of Mars but Starship will be capable to do a lot of different tasks – to place satellites or space stations in orbit, ferry passengers to space stations or the Moon and even ferry passengers or cargo between any destinations on Earth within an hour.

The rocket consists of two stages – the booster (aka "Super Heavy") and the spacecraft (aka "Starship"). Both stages will use methalox rocket engine called "Raptor" and will separate using the hot staging method. SpaceX chose methalox fuel for its next generation rocket engine not only because methane can be easily produced on Mars but also because it burns cleaner (allowing cheaper reusability) and don't require super-low temperature for storage as hydrogen does. Another novelty – while originally SpaceX intended to use carbon fiber for the body of Starship & Super Heavy, current design uses a variant of 304L stainless steel for better thermal protection and higher strength-to-weight ratios at both cryogenic and high temperatures.


SpaceX Starship
Starship (formerly known as Big Falcon Ship / Spaceship) is the 2nd stage of the rocket and will be made in no less than four versions – crewed, cargo, tanker and Lunar. Starship is 9 meters in diameter and uses 3 sea-level and 3 or 6 vacuum Raptor engines. It will have a pressurized volume of over 1000 m3 – more than the International Space Station.

Starship will have unique heat protection with only the windward side (receiving higher pressure from air molecules) of the ship having heat shield of hexagonal ceramic tiles; the leeward side will be protected by ship's shiny stainless steel body itself, mirroring away most of the heat. This design decision will (hopefully) provide for Starship a lightweight, robust and cheaply reusable protection from entry heat even coming in at interplanetary speeds.

Starship, having 4 landing legs (except those leg-less Starships intended only to be catched by Mechazilla arms), 2 rear and 2 smaller forward actuated fins, is designed to be able retropropulsively land anywhere in the Solar system, including Earth, the Moon and Mars. It's also the first spacecraft designed to be able to support and land large quantity of cargo and passengers on other planetary bodies. To do so it will require on-orbit refueling by one or more Starship tankers depending on the destination and cargo.

Super Heavy

SpaceX Super Heavy booster
Super Heavy (formerly known as Big Falcon Booster), the 1st stage of the rocket, is 9 meters in diameter and uses 33 Raptor engines. It will have more thrust than any rocket in human history – more than 2x the thrust of the mighty Saturn V. It will be used only to boost Starship from the surface of Earth because of its deep gravity well; from other possible destinations, as Mars or the Moon, Starship will be capable to lift off by itself.

After boosting the Starship (in its crewed, cargo, tanker or Lunar version) Super Heavy will retropropulsively land back and be catched by Mechazilla arms at the launch site.

Starship's development

Early design iteration of Starship from 2016 to 2019:
SpaceX Starship evolution 2016-2019 by Kimi Talvitie

Starting Starship's active test program in early 2019 SpaceX built the first prototype test vehicle (Starhopper) at its Boca Chica launch facility in South Texas, now known as Starbase, mated it with a single Raptor engine and conducted several hop tests. Starhopper lifted up for about 150 meters in its last test on August 2019 and was retired. There was a second Starship test facility in Cocoa, Florida, but after the first full scale test vehicle Starship Mk1 exploded on November 2019 in Boca Chica, the Cocoa site was abandoned. After several Starship prototypes had exploded during pressure or static fire tests Starship SN5 successfully passed the same test Starhopper did (a 150 meter hop) - on August 2020. A month later Starship SN6 did the same. Starship SN8 was the first flight-ready prototype to have a nose cone, fins and three Raptor engines. On December 2020 it successfully performed a 12.5 km flight with the distinctive "skydiver" belly flop maneuver on descent before crashing on the landing pad. Starships SN9, SN10 & SN11 met a similar fate. Starship SN15, the next major iteration of Starship family with hundreds of improvements over the previous prototypes, was the first to finnaly stick the landing on May 2021.

SpaceX has already fully or partially built several Starship + Super Heavy pairs and performed first four gradually more and more successful orbital flight tests of the full rocket system: Flight test-1 with Starship S24 & Booster B7 on April 20, 2023, Flight test-2 with Starship S25 & Booster B9 on November 18, 2023, Flight test-3 with Starship S28 & Booster B10 on March 14, 2024, and Flight test-4 with Starship S29 & Booster B11 on June 6, 2024. Simultaneously SpaceX is building two orbital launch complexes (at Starbase, Texas & Kennedy Space Center, Florida) with a giant launch integration tower and its distinct Mechazilla catch mechanism.

SpaceX Starship orbital flight test 4 - infographic by Tony Bela and SpaceX LIVESTREAM

SpaceX is tasked to get Artemis III crew on the surface of the Moon in 2026 and hopes to land first humans on Mars in 2029. We estimate the two milestones will happen several years later – in 2028 and 2031 respectively because developing a human-rated spacecraft is a lot harder task than building "just" a cargo rocket, as the example of Crew Dragon teaches us.

Lunar Starship (Human Landing System)

SpaceX Lunar Starship on the Moon
On April 2021 NASA announced it has selected SpaceX to develop the first commercial human lander that will carry American astronauts to the lunar surface in mid-2020s as part of the Artemis program. Since 2020 SpaceX is developing a lunar optimized Starship to transport crew between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon. The Lunar Starship (called Human Landing System or HLS) will land on the surface of the Moon with large gas thrusters instead of the Raptor engines (which are too powerful and would kick up a ton of Lunar regolith during landing), it won't have flaps and heat shielding (required for Earth return), will be painted white and will have a Dragon-derived docking port on the nosecone. There will also be a cargo version of the Lunar Starship.

Iterations of Starship Super Heavy:

Official and fan-made art of Starship & Super Heavy:


  1. When you update SpaceX's predictions, can you provide links to those statements online, e.g. "SpaceX is hoping to make first orbital flight of the full rocket system (with Super Heavy boosting the Starship) by the end of X2020X 2021, perform first flight around the Moon in 2023 and land first humans on Mars in X2025X 2027."

    1. Elon recently replied the first human landing is pushed forward to 2029:

    2. The dearMoon Lunar mission, originally scheduled to fly around the Moon in 2023, has been officially cancelled:

  2. After adding hot staging method to the design, Elon has mentioned Starship will be capable to lift up to 200 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) when fully reused or up to 300 metric tons to LEO if expended.