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NASA astronauts get up-close look at SpaceX's Starship SN11 prototype (photo)

NASA astronauts (from left to right) Michael Barratt, Reid Wiseman, Christina Koch and Matthew Dominick stand in front of SpaceX’s Starship SN11 prototype in South Texas. Koch posted this photo on Twitter on March 23, 2021.
NASA astronauts (from left to right) Michael Barratt, Reid Wiseman, Christina Koch and Matthew Dominick stand in front of SpaceX’s Starship SN11 prototype in South Texas. Koch posted this photo on Twitter on March 23, 2021. (Image credit: Christina Koch via Twitter)

NASA astronauts just got a tutorial on the spaceship that may land people on the moon a few years from now.

Christina Koch and some of her NASA colleagues recently toured SpaceX's South Texas facility, where the company is building and testing prototypes for its Starship deep-space transportation system. The astronauts even snapped a selfie with the latest Starship iteration, SN11, which could launch on a high-altitude test flight this week.

"Common goals, shared vision. NASA astronauts learning about the SpaceX Starship — one element in a growing worldwide field of deeper space exploration systems with sights on the moon and Mars," Koch wrote on Twitter Tuesday (March 23). 

Those words served as a caption for the selfie, which shows Koch and fellow astronauts Michael Barratt, Matthew Dominick and Reid Wiseman standing in front of the stainless-steel SN11 ("Serial No. 11").

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Koch and Dominick are in the first cadre of 18 astronauts that NASA selected for its Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s. 

Starship may end up being a big part of this effort. The SpaceX system is one of three private concepts that NASA is considering as Artemis' human landing system. The other two moon-lander ideas are being developed by Dynetics and a team led by Jeff Bezos' spaceflight company, Blue Origin.

SpaceX's Starship system consists of a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) spacecraft, known as Starship, and a giant first-stage booster called Super Heavy. Both elements are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, and both will be powered by SpaceX's next-generation Raptor engine. The final Starship will have six Raptors and the final Super Heavy will have about 30, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.

SN11 features just three Raptors. It won't go all the way to space on its upcoming flight; SpaceX is targeting a maximum altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).

SN11's three immediate predecessors performed such a flight as well. All did quite well, though none of the craft aced the trial end to end. SN8 and SN9 — which launched in December 2020 and February 2021, respectively — came down to Earth too hard and crashed at the landing site. SN10 touched down successfully during its March 3 flight but couldn't hold it together, exploding in a massive fireball about eight minutes later.

Such test flights will continue well beyond SN11. Musk has said that SpaceX aims to get a Starship prototype to Earth orbit this year, and he envisions the system being fully operational by 2023. There's already a Starship mission tentatively scheduled to launch that year — "dearMoon," a flight around the moon booked by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.