When will the real Starfleet arrive?

Future Starship fleet

Starfleet, the fictional name given to earth’s space exploration fleet in the TV/movie franchise Star Trek.

We are a long way from having the technological prowess to travel amongst the stars, leaving light speed behind and exploring strange new worlds.
However, we do have the technological capability to travel amongst the planets of our solar system.
This did not stop Elon Musk from naming his latest and most ambitious project to date ‘Starship’. Even though it will not be capable of traveling amongst the stars, well perhaps only our own for that matter.

But some have hinted that Elon might call a bunch of Starships put together a Starfleet. He even mentioned that a Starfleet academy should be created to train the next Starfleet commanders (The commanders part was me :).

I am sure many of you are curious when such a fleet of Starships could become a reality. When will we see hundreds of Starships blazing through the night sky? A dream for many, for hardcore astronomers more like a nightmare.

To give you a little bit of a taste of how Elon’s Starfleet could like like in earth’s orbit. Feel free to pan around in the 360 degrees VR render below.

Having looked around the Starship fleet in 360 one cannot but wonder how the heck this could be achieved in my lifetime. A fleet of hundreds of Starships would be simply colossal. In this render alone there are 100 Starships, more of them made my computer crash during rendering.
Elon Musk even stated that a fleet of 1000 Starships would leave for Mars when it is closest to earth every two years or so.

You would think it would take dozens of years to create such a fleet of a hundred starships. That it would take hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. Perhaps if the SLS program’s approach would be taken. Then indeed this might be true.

Luckily for us, Elon Musk, who owns the majority of SpaceX, will employ more efficient methods to make this Sci-Fi dream a reality in our lifetimes and also his.
His master plan is to build a machine that builds the machine. A manufacturing line for giant spaceships that can churn out 2 Starships per week. That means that every year, more than 100 Starships could roll out of a highly specialized, half automated factory.
If, or rather and hopefully when, this plan has been successfully executed, the era of humanity being a true spacefaring civilization will have begun.

100 Starship fleet in earth orbit

Now, after a lot of textual and visual fluff, let’s get back to the original question. When will we see this Starfleet, ready to carry our hopes and dreams, become a reality?

Currently, at the writing of this article on 15.04.2020, the SpaceX team is hard at work on SN4 (serial number 4). The fourth iteration of the experimental Starship that is meant to make some short hops of around 150 meters high, perhaps a few weeks away.

After that, later this year they hope to have SN6 or SN7 be able to fly to an altitude of around 20 kilometers high and then make a propulsive controlled landing on a designated pad.

Most of the time Elon and his team do not manage to achieve the usually very aggressive timelines Musk often reveals in quick tweets to the world. But that does not stop them from trying, till eventually they do succeed and get really good at it in the process.
I believe that in 2021 they will be able to get a Starship to orbit on top of a superheavy booster.
My best guess is that at the end of 2021 they will have more or less iterated the kinks out of the initial Starship design. They will also have a super heavy booster ready and try a flight with full orbital insertion. One cool idea would be to send up a Cybertruck on the maiden flight or a roadster two, joining the first one in a trajectory around the sun.

So there is a good chance that next year space exploration history will be made by SpaceX once more. Only this time, the impact it will have on nearly every aspect of our society is so grandiose, that it is simply impossible to narrate them all in one post.

Besides SpaceX working on the Starship prototypes until a bunch of successful launches is achieved.
They are not only iterating and improving on Starship design, but also for the bigger part of the manufacturing and build process itself, to make it more efficient, faster and reliable. To introduce automated welding processes where they can.
It would not surprise me if by the end of 2022 SpaceX will have a dedicated assembly line a la Tesla style, capable of completing two Starships and boosters per week according to Elon’s plan.

Or course, we have to be realistic and assume that there will be some delays until our Starship fleet is rolling from the assembly lines.
But even with a schedule delay of 1 to 2 years.
This would still mean that at least dozens of starships could be heading to Mars in the year 2024 when Mars is closest to earth. They could bring the resources and robotics needed to start the construction of a Mars base for when the crewed Starships arrive two years later in 2026 to establish a permanent human colony.
After which humanity will finally be a multi-planetary species and we can finally look up to the sky knowing that we are no longer alone out there.