CEO Elon Musk says it’s “highly likely” that SpaceX will be ready to attempt its first orbital Starship launch in November 2022, and possibly in late October. But many significant obstacles remain.
Adding to a welcome burst For information on SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship rocket program, Musk took to Twitter on Sept. 21 to provide a slightly more specific look at the company’s next steps toward a crucial orbital launch debut. On September 19, the CEO revealed that SpaceX would send the Starship (B7) booster currently assigned to that debut back to the factory for mysterious “robustness improvements” – an unexpected move on the heels of an apparently successful and unprecedented static fire test.
Two days later, Musk indicated that those upgrades could involve strengthening the Super Heavy Booster 7’s thrust section to ensure it can survive Raptor engine failures. With 33 Raptor V2 engines powering it and plenty of evidence that those Raptors are far from perfect reliability, the concern is understandable, even if the response is a bit different than the SpaceX norm.
Before the start of preparations for the debut of Starship’s orbital launch, SpaceX accelerated the development of Starship as if Dear to destroy as many rockets as possible, which, to an extent, it did. Instead of spending 6-12 months tinkering with the same prototypes without a single launch attempt, SpaceX produced Starships and test items and aggressively tested them. Sometimes SpaceX pushed too hard and made avoidable mistakes, but most failures produced vast amounts of data that was then used to improve future vehicles.
The holy grail of that project was the high-altitude Starship flight test, in which SpaceX completed, tested and launched a new Starship five times in six months, culminating in the first successful high-altitude Starship launch and landing. total in May 2021.
By comparison, SpaceX’s orbital flight test preparations have been almost unrecognizable. While a fair amount of progress has been made in the 16 months since SN15’s successful launch and landing, it’s clear that SpaceX has decided against taking significant risks. After spending more than six months slowly wrapping up and testing Super Heavy Booster 4 and Starship 20, the first orbital-class pair, SpaceX didn’t even attempt a single static shot of Booster 4 and unceremoniously retired both prototypes without attempting to fly either.
With no information from Musk or SpaceX, we may never know why SpaceX retired B4 and S20, or why the company appears to have revised its development approach to be a bit more conservative after clearly demonstrating the efficacy of moving fast and taking on big risks. Winning a $3 billion contract that puts Starship front and center in NASA’s attempt to return astronauts to the Moon may have encouraged a more careful approach. SpaceX won that contract in April 2021.
Even in its most cautious third phase, Starship development remains extraordinarily hardware-rich, fast-moving, and discovering Many problems on the ground instead of learning from flight tests. But that doesn’t change the fact that the third phase of Starship’s development (H2 2021 – today) is proceeding more carefully than the first (Q4 2018 to Q4 2019) and second phases (Q1 2020 – Q2 2021).
Nonetheless, it appears that SpaceX is finally closing in on Starship’s first orbital launch. According to Musk, the company could be ready for the first launch attempt in late October, but a November attempt is “highly likely.” He believes that SpaceX will have two pairs of orbital-class Starships and Super Heavy boosters (B7/S24; B8/S25) “ready for orbital flight by then,” which could allow for a quick return to flight after the first attempt. Musk is also excited about Super Heavy Booster 9, which has “many design changes” and a thruster section that will completely isolate all 33 Raptors from each other, which is crucial to prevent the failure of one engine from damaging others.
Meanwhile, as Musk predicted, Super Heavy Booster 8 hit the launch pad on September 19 and will likely be tested in the near future while Booster 7 is updated at the factory.
As encouraging as it may be, history has shown that reality, particularly when it comes to Starship’s orbital launch debut, may be a little different than the pictures Elon Musk paints. In September 2021, for example, musk predicted that SpaceX would fire the first static Super Heavy shot at the Starbase orbital launch pad later that month. In reality, that crucial test occurred 11 months later (August 9, 2022) and used a completely different booster.
Namely, significant progress has been made in recent months, but SpaceX has a huge amount of work left, almost all of which is in uncharted territory. Starship 24, which completed its first six engine static fire earlier this month, it is currently undergoing strange modifications that seem to imply that the upper stage is not living up to SpaceX’s expectations. It is not clear if additional tests will be required.
Super Heavy B7 returns to the factory for additional work after a successful static fire of seven Raptors. Once it returns to the pad, the sequence is unclear, but SpaceX will need to complete the first full Super Heavy wet dress rehearsal (fully loading the booster with thousands of tons of flammable propellant). Y 33-Raptor’s first full static fire. It remains to be seen whether SpaceX will continue with its conservative approach (i.e. testing one, three and seven engines for six weeks) or go straight from testing seven to 33 engines.
It’s also unclear where Ship 24 fits into that picture. Eventually, SpaceX will need (or should) do a wet dress rehearsal of the fully stacked Starship and may even want to attempt a 33-engine static fire with that fully fueled two-stage vehicle to really test the rocket under the same conditions. will drop below. Will SpaceX fully stack B7 and S24 as soon as the booster returns to the pad, risking a potentially flyable spacecraft during the riskiest Super Heavy tests yet?
SpaceX’s last year of business suggests the company will err on the side of caution and conduct wet dress and static fire tests of 33 engines before and after stacking, potentially doubling the amount of testing required. One or more more tests will also be required if SpaceX decides to gradually build up to 33 engines, which is the approach all Booster 7 activity to date suggests SpaceX will take.
Either way, it will be quite a challenge for SpaceX to have a fully stacked Starship ready to launch for the final November Yes none Significant problems arise during none Given the various unprecedented tests outlined above, Musk’s anticipated schedule will likely turn out to be impossible. As a wild card, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to issue SpaceX a license or experimental permit for Starship orbital launches, either of which is up to dozens of “mitigations”.
This is not to say that it is impossible for a Starship orbital launch attempt to occur in November. But considering the many problems Booster 7 and Ship 24 have experienced during much simpler tests, it’s becoming less and less plausible that SpaceX is ready to launch the pair before the end of 2022. Stay tuned.