A Starship space station? NASA wants a modified SpaceX Mars rocket to orbit Earth

The Starship upper stage's impressive 29.5-foot diameter means it could fit up to 100 passengers at a time.
Chris Young
Artist renderings of Starship.
Artist renderings of Starship.

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SpaceX's Starship rocket program is the culmination of founder Elon Musk's original plan of sending humans to Mars and making humans an interplanetary species.

And yet, Musk has always championed the launch system, originally called the Interplanetary Transport System, as a versatile spacecraft that could be used as a rapid point-to-point transportation system for Earth — a modified version of Starship has also been contracted by NASA for the Artemis III Moon landings, expected to take place in 2025.

Now, NASA has announced it has selected seven companies via its Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities-2 initiative (CCSC-2), an unfunded Space Act Agreement that provides NASA consultation and technical expertise.

In that announcement, the US space agency envisions Starship as a "transportation and in-space low-Earth orbit destination."

NASA's vision for a Starship space station

Back in 2018, SpaceX released a number of artist renderings of Starship, one of which showed a performer playing the violin in microgravity in front of an audience.

The image presented SpaceX's aspirations for Starship to be more than a conventional rocket — it showed that future iterations of the launch system could double up as an orbital space tourism destination or a space amphitheater for humans traveling to Mars.

A Starship space station? NASA wants a modified SpaceX Mars rocket to orbit Earth
An artist's impression of a violin performance aboard Starship.

Now, in NASA's CCSC-2 initiative announcement, the space agency wrote that "SpaceX is collaborating with NASA on an integrated low Earth orbit architecture to provide a growing portfolio of technology with near-term Dragon evolution and concurrent Starship development.

"This architecture includes Starship as a transportation and in-space low-Earth orbit destination element supported by Super Heavy, Dragon, and Starlink, and constituent capabilities including crew and cargo transportation, communications, and operational and ground support," the statement continued.

A Starship space station? NASA wants a modified SpaceX Mars rocket to orbit Earth
An artist's impression of Starship in low Earth orbit.

NASA has been looking to the private sector to build a number of low Earth orbit (LEO) orbital stations, with the International Space Station (ISS) expected to end operations by around 2030. The space agency has divided awards totaling $415 million to several private space station programs, including Blue Origin and Sierra Space's Orbital Reef station, as well as Nanoracks' Starlab.

The CCSC-2 initiative is allowing NASA to extend those efforts. The agency announced seven companies selected through CCSC-2 in its update: Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc., Vast Space LLC, and SpaceX.

Starship's development

SpaceX designed Starship to be fully reusable in a bid to make human flight to Mars economically feasible. The full launch system, including the Super Heavy first stage booster and the Starship upper stage, stands at 394 feet (120 meters) tall.

The private space company has claimed the rocket could eventually hold up to 100 passengers due to its 29.5-foot (9 m) diameter. As a point of reference, the space station with the highest open interior volume to date was NASA's Skylab station, which had a lower diameter of 21.76 feet.

SpaceX launched the fully-integrated Starship system once for a test flight on April 20 this year. During that orbital launch attempt, the rocket started to spin at high altitudes, causing SpaceX to trigger a manual termination.

Elon Musk's space company said it was still able to collect a wealth of data during that test flight, and it is now preparing for the second launch of Starship in the coming weeks — though that may be delayed by an ongoing lawsuit involving an environmental group, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), and Starship.

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