Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, said Friday the company’s huge new Starship rocket could be ready for its first orbital test launch from South Texas as soon as November, but the schedule comes with two big uncertainties that may push the launch to next year.
“If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval,” Musk tweeted.
The new schedule update from Musk came the day after SpaceX test-fired the newest Starship vehicle, known as Ship 20 or SN20, at the company’s development facility near Boca Chica Beach east of Brownsville, Texas. A vacuum-rated Raptor engine, similar to the engines Starship will use in space, ignited for several seconds on a launching stand at SpaceX’s Starbase complex Thursday night.
SpaceX briefly fired the privately-developed rocket again later the same night.
It was the first test-firing of a Raptor vacuum engine mounted to a Starship rocket. The vacuum variant of the methane-fueled Raptor engine has a larger nozzle to improved performance in the airless environment of space.
Three vacuum-rated Raptor engines will fly on orbital-class Starship missions. Three sea level Raptor variants, with smaller nozzles, will be used for vertical Starship landings after returning from space.
Unlike the Starship prototypes flown on the recent atmospheric hops, Ship 20 is covered in thousands of heat-resistant tiles to protect the craft’s stainless steel structure from the scorching heat it will encounter during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The Starship will launch on top of a huge reusable first stage booster called the Super Heavy. Made of stainless steel, the entire stack stands 394 feet (120 meters) tall, higher than any rocket ever built.
Fitted with up to 33 Raptor engines, the Super Heavy will propel the Starship into space with twice the thrust of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket, and nearly double the power of NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.
In August, SpaceX teams in South Texas briefly stacked the entire Starship rocket on a launch mount for a fit check and photo opportunity. At the time, SpaceX connected 29 Raptor engines — four fewer than the booster will use on an operational flight — to the Super Heavy and rolled the booster to the ever-expanding launch complex, just east of the company’s build site.
After the fit check, SpaceX removed the Raptor engines from the Super Heavy, designated Booster 4, as attention turned to preparing Ship 20 for cryogenic proof testing in September.
SpaceX then readied Starship for its first static fire tests this week. More test-firings may occur before Ship 20 is mounted on top of the Super Heavy booster again.
Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to perform cryogenic proof testing of Booster 4 some time in the coming weeks, likely followed by a series of test-firings, culminating in a static fire with its full complement of Raptor engines.
Outfitting of the launch pad tower at Boca Chica has also continued since its initial construction over the summer. Earlier this week, crews lifted massive arms, nicknamed “chopsticks,” onto the launch tower that SpaceX aims to use for catching descending Super Heavy boosters.
Although SpaceX has moved forward with great speed at Boca Chica, the chances of the Super Heavy and Starship vehicles being ready for flight next month are uncertain. Musk often sets aspirational schedule goals, and in September 2019 said he wanted to attempt the first orbital launch attempt with Starship within six months.
Another schedule hurdle might be the Federal Aviation Administration, which is reviewing the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations in South Texas. The FAA issued a draft environmental report last month after consultation with several federal and state agencies.
The draft report marks a re-evaluation of the FAA’s original environmental impact statement before SpaceX started construction of the Boca Chica site in 2014. At that time, SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from South Texas, but the scope of the project has since changed to focus on development of Starship and Super Heavy.
The FAA held public hearings Monday and Wednesday, and some 120 people voiced their opinions on the project’s environmental impacts. The public comments were more than two-to-one in favor of the FAA finalizing the draft programmatic environment assessment, and issuing SpaceX a launch license for the Starship orbital test flight.
Many of the comments in favor of SpaceX came from members of the public outside Texas. The share of people who identified themselves as local residents and voiced opposition was higher.
Joyce Hamilton, who said she was a member of the local community, worried that SpaceX would damage the “fragile and unique coastline” at Boca Chica Beach.
“In fact, we’ve already seen the damaging impact of a recent launch failure with a wide and destructive debris field along the beach and surrounding wetlands,” Hamilton said. “I’d like to just end by urging the FAA to conduct a serious comprehensive environmental impact study.”
Rebecca Hinojosa, a Brownsville resident, said SpaceX has been a destructive influence on the community through gentrification, and displaced residents who once lived near the Boca Chica site. SpaceX bought out homes in the area as it constructed the facility.
Others were supportive of the FAA allowing SpaceX to go ahead with no delay, citing the positive economic effects of SpaceX’s presence in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Elon Musk chose our community to be the next home of his SpaceX operation, and very, very quickly after setting up, this area went from being one of the poorest areas, one of the most looked-down, in the entire nation … We’re no longer in that position. We’re now one of the most sought after zip codes to live and raise your children,” said Jessica Tetreau, a Brownsville city commissioner.
“I don’t just ask you,” she concluded. “I beg you to give them that permit.”
“As far as the environment goes, it seems to me that SpaceX has a good plan in place to mitigate the vast majority of environmental effects from the build and test sites,” said Michael O’Halloran, who did not identify himself as a local resident. “Starship and Super Heavy are clearly worth the gamble.”
Crews at SpaceX’s Starbase test site in South Texas stack the company’s first full-scale Starship launch vehicle for a fit check in August. Credit: SpaceX
The FAA is accepting written comments until Nov. 1, then will determine whether to finalize the draft environmental assessment or begin a new environmental impact statement if the environmental effects would be significant and could not be properly mitigated.
A new environmental impact statement would take months, or even years, to complete.
A decision by the FAA on which route to take is not expected immediately. The FAA said it is reviewing the environmental impacts from SpaceX’s Starship launch and re-entry operations, debris recovery, the launch pad integration tower and other launch-related construction, and local road closures at Boca Chica.
SpaceX can’t launch the Starship and Super Heavy vehicle until the FAA issues a license, which will only come after the completion of the environmental process.
NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a version of the Starship rocket as a human-rated lander for the agency’s Artemis moon missions.
That contract award is currently on hold after Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. A ruling on the lawsuit could come next month.
SpaceX is developing the privately-owned Starship vehicle as a fully reusable launch and space transportation system capable of ferrying more than 100 metric tons of cargo into low Earth orbit, more than any other rocket in the world. SpaceX eventually aims to develop an in-space refueling capability to extend Starship’s heavy-duty cargo carrying range into the solar system.
During an orbital launch attempt, a reusable Super Heavy first stage booster will detach from the Starship and come back to Earth for a vertical landing. For the first orbital mission, SpaceX plans to guide the the booster to a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico.
SpaceX is also modifying offshore oil drilling rigs to serve as floating Starship launch and landing platforms.
The Starship will continue into orbit and deploy its payloads or travel to its deep space destination, and finally return to Earth to be flown again. The Starship vehicle doubles as an upper stage and a refillable transporter to ferry people and cargo through space to destinations in Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and other distant locations.
The reusable architecture, which builds upon SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket, is designed to reduce the cost of each flight.
The Starship’s first orbital test flight, though audacious in scale, will aim to prove out the rocket’s basic launch and re-entry capabilities without fully testing out the complicated landing and recovery systems, according to a SpaceX’s filing with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year.
On the first orbital mission, SpaceX plans for the Starship to re-enter the atmosphere after one trip around Earth, heading for a controlled landing at sea in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.