CEO Elon Musk says that it’s “highly likely” SpaceX will be ready to attempt its first orbital Starship launch in November 2022, and possibly as early as late October. But many major hurdles remain.
Adding to a welcome burst of insight into SpaceX’s fully-reusable Starship rocket program, Musk took to Twitter on September 21st to provide a bit more specific insight into the company’s next steps towards a crucial orbital launch debut. On September 19th, the CEO revealed that SpaceX would roll the Starship booster (B7) currently assigned to that debut back to the factory for mysterious “robustness upgrades” – an unexpected move right after a seemingly successful and record-breaking static fire test.
Two days later, Musk has indicated that those upgrades might involve fortifying 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 SpaceX’s norm.
Prior to the start of preparations for Starship’s orbital launch debut, SpaceX sped through Starship development like it wanted to destroy as many rockets as possible – which, to some extent, it did. Rather than spend 6-12 months fiddling with the same few prototypes without a single launch attempt, SpaceX churned out Starships and test articles and aggressively tested them. A few times, SpaceX pushed a little too hard and made avoidable mistakes, but most of the failures produced large amounts of data that was then used to improve future vehicles.
The holy grail of that project was high-altitude Starship flight testing, which saw SpaceX finish, test, and launch a new Starship five times in six months, and culminated in the first fully successful high-altitude Starship launch and landing in May 2021.
In comparison, SpaceX’s orbital flight test preparations have been almost unrecognizable. While a good 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 finishing and testing Super Heavy Booster 4 and Starship 20, the first orbital-class pair, SpaceX never even attempted a single Booster 4 static fire and unceremoniously retired both prototypes without attempting to fly either.
Without info from Musk or SpaceX, we may never know why SpaceX stood down 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 big risks. It’s possible that winning a $3 billion contract that places Starship front and center in NASA’s attempt to return astronauts to the Moon has encouraged a more careful approach. SpaceX won that contract in April 2021.
Even in its more cautious third phase, Starship development is still extraordinarily hardware-rich, moving quickly, and uncovering many problems on the ground in lieu of learning from flight tests. But that doesn’t change the fact that the third phase of Starship development (H2 2021 – today) is proceeding more carefully than the first (Q4 2018 to Q4 2019) and second (Q1 2020 – Q2 2021) phases.
Nonetheless, SpaceX appears to finally be getting closer to Starship’s first orbital launch. According to Musk, the company could be ready for the first launch attempt as early as 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,” potentially enabling a rapid return to flight after the first attempt. Musk is also excited about Super Heavy Booster 9, which has “many design changes” and a thrust section that will fully isolate all 33 Raptors from each other – crucial for preventing the failure of one engine from damaging others.
Meanwhile, as Musk forecasted, Super Heavy Booster 8 rolled to the launch pad on September 19th and will likely be proof tested in the near future while Booster 7 is upgraded back at the factory.
Encouraging as that may be, history has shown that reality – particularly when it involves Starship’s orbital launch debut – can be quite a bit different than the pictures Elon Musk paints. In September 2021, for example, Musk predicted that SpaceX would conduct the first Super Heavy static fire at Starbase’s orbital launch pad later that month. In reality, that crucial test occurred 11 months later (August 9th, 2022) and used an entirely different booster.
This is to say that significant progress has been made in the last few months, but SpaceX has a huge amount of work left, almost all of which lies in uncharted terrain. Starship 24, which completed its first six-engine static fire earlier this month, is currently undergoing strange modifications that seem to imply that the upper stage is not living up to SpaceX’s expectations. It’s unclear if additional testing will be required.
Super Heavy B7 is headed back to the factory for additional work after a successful seven-Raptor static fire. Once it returns to the pad, the sequencing isn’t clear, 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) other the first full 33 raptor static fire. It remains to be seen if SpaceX will continue its conservative approach (ie testing one, three, and seven engines over six weeks) or jump straight from seven- to 33-engine testing.
It’s also unclear where Ship 24 fits into that picture. SpaceX will eventually need to (or should) conduct a full 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 truly test the rocket under the same conditions it will launch under. Will SpaceX fully stack B7 and S24 as soon as the booster returns to the pad, risking a potentially flightworthy Starship during the riskiest Super Heavy tests yet?
SpaceX’s last year of activity suggests that the company will choose caution and conduct wet dress rehearsals and 33-engine static fires before and after stacking, potentially doubling the amount of testing required. One or several more tests will also be required if SpaceX decides to gradually build up to 33 engines, which is the approach that all Booster 7 activity to date suggests SpaceX will take.
Either way, it will be a major challenge for SpaceX to have a fully-stacked Starship ready to launch by the end of Nov. If any significant problems arise during any of the several unprecedented tests described above, Musk’s predicted schedule will likely become impossible. As a wildcard, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to issue SpaceX a license or experimental permit for orbital Starship launches, either of which is contingent upon dozens of “mitigations.”
This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for an orbital Starship launch attempt to occur in November. But factoring in the many issues Booster 7 and Ship 24 have experienced during much simpler tests, it’s becoming increasingly implausible that SpaceX will be ready to launch the pair before the end of 2022. Stay tuned.