Any sufficiently advanced space technology is indistinguishable from a weapon of mass destruction if misused.

In the event that SpaceX lost control of a Starship to EvilHackers, what's the most damage they can do with it? Straight-up detonation in LEO, even if possible, likely wouldn't be that bad even for a fully refueled starship.

If the other hand, a fully fueled starship hitting NYC or similar at 11km/s would probably have been fairly bad... but I'm having difficulty thinking of any particularly bad

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    $\begingroup$ How evil? Were they able to change the physical payload? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Was it an evil payload? $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ You'd have a job reaching sea level whilst going at escape velocity. Even things like Sprint missiles and rods from god are only expecting to go at more like 3km/s down in the thickest bit of the atmosphere, and the starship definitely isn't designed to be doing silly things like that. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ I'll also note that range safety systems exist, even for crewed spacecraft. One does not simply "lose control" over something capable of going to orbit ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ I think the most damage would be if they didn't even attempt orbital flight or escaping the atmosphere, just launch fully fueled starship on top of super-heavy on a shallow ballistic trajectory towards the nearest city, with self-destruct disabled, saving as much fuel as possible for the impact. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Apr 26, 2021 at 22:02

4 Answers 4


Starship cannot hit the ground at 11 km/s. Those speeds are only attainable in a vacuum. As the ship reenters, it slows down due to the atmosphere, and it continues to slow down pretty much the entire way to the ground.

A falling object will have a terminal velocity of about 100-200km/h depending on its shape. Starships empty mass is a lot less than a Boeing 747, and it'd be traveling at comparable speeds when hitting the ground, so that may give you an idea of the scale of the impact and damage.


The good news is, its total mass is pretty low, in terms of mass destruction. Its total fuel load is again pretty low in terms of mass destruction.

So worst case is highest mass which means highest fuel load, and maximum speed. (Kinetic energy is 1/2 * mass * velocity^2). The upper stage caps out at under a million lbs of fuel + oxidizer. The upper stage itself is close to 100,000 lbs. But it would need to come off the Super Heavy stage, and then direct itself to some target. None of which are particularly close (Wonder why launch sites are where they are?). I guess Disney Land in Orlando might be close to a Florida launch site. But since Disney Land is quite dispersed it might not be very effective.

Sure it can do tons of local damage, and with careful targetting could be really really terrible, but this is still going to be pretty localized in the grand scheme of things.

On the other hand, consider that as a child Elon Musk says he was bullied and tormented in school in South Africa. If I were those kids, I would be very scared. Musk now has access to the control software for all the landing Falcon 9 first stages. Imagine if he redirected one to someones house. Be pretty terrible, but not catastrophic.

  • $\begingroup$ Consdering the effect rather less fuel had on the Twin Towers, the damage is a very strong function of the target parameters. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft A jet liner early in its flight is likely to have quite a bit more fuel than a Starship that's completed its launch burns, which will only have a few tons left for reentry and landing. It would be quite difficult to get a Starship to impact anywhere with a large fraction of its fuel load intact. The LOX will make things worse, but it'll be a showy and hot but very localized and brief fire...like we've seen in Boca Chica several times now. Very incendiary and destructive to a building or two, but far from a weapon of mass destruction. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the question explicitly states that it could have been refuelled. Also, isn't it 1/2mv squared? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ A Starship full of propellant would not get far. That's about 10 times more mass in propellant than it's supposed to carry in payload, and the main tanks are not designed to handle even normal reentry heating while full of cryogenic propellants. It's a toss-up whether the nose and tail would be torn off by aerodynamic forces or the tanks would burst from boiling propellants first, but either way, the effect on the ground would be more like Columbia's last flight than any WMD. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 22:24

They could strike one small ground target of opportunity, or do something hugely visible like destroy the ISS.

A fully fueled Starship in LEO could theoretically burn to deorbit anytime in the next orbit or two and come down mostly empty on any point beneath those next few orbits - but that would severely limit the sort of critical targets they could hit to things beneath or very near those next few orbits, and the scale of destruction would be similar in magnitude to a jet airliner crashing down. With planning, presumably they would vent enough leftover propellant between entry burn and entry, leaving the most they can safely carry through reentry to maximize ground destruction.

If they choose to use some of that large fuel load to maneuver in orbit towards a more valuable target on the ground, I believe the chances of success are far lower because one of the several militaries with ASAT capabilities would likely become tempted to shoot it while it's still in LEO, containing the major threat to space.

Given that, the other major harm they might be able to cause would be attempting to maneuver towards the ISS. Perhaps it was a cargo ship carrying new hardware, or another flight that coincidentally can be made to intersect with the ISS orbit with a few km/s of deltaV applied. At that point they could attempt a direct strike or attempt to trigger the FTS or destroy the vehicle through other means (overspeed a turbine, overpressurize a tank, etc) to create a large debris field.


Probably on the order of a V-2 strike with perhaps a bit more accuracy.

However, passenger Starships will most likely have several layers of security, one of which will most likely seen early on in iterations towards that goal: a separable passenger compartment.

In the event of any emergency, the passenger compartment is pulled away (perhaps with Super Dracos) and the rest blown up, safely away from the cities.

This design feature, accompanied with parachutes, may also see Martian application in the form of a vertical parachute descent/landing rocket check phase after a "flop" reentry. If the landing rockets aren't green, then the crew could still be saved by jettisoning the booster and saving the capsule.

Unfortunately, today's modern airliners still carry the 1930s DC3 legacy of passenger access to the cockpit. SpaceX may know better, or at least their insurers will talk them into it.

  • $\begingroup$ They might also just passivate the passengers with "420 chewables" $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 27, 2021 at 1:27

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