Elon Musk, the billionaire creator of SpaceX, said Friday that the company’s massive new Starship rocket might be ready for its maiden orbital test launch from South Texas as early as November, but the timeline is subject to two major uncertainties that could extend the flight until next year.
Musk’s latest timeline update comes the day after SpaceX tested the newest Starship spacecraft, known as Ship 20 or SN20, at the company’s development site near Boca Chica Beach, east of Brownsville, Texas. A vacuum-rated Raptor engine, identical to the one’s Starship will use in orbit, fired for several seconds Thursday night on a launching platform at SpaceX’s Starbase facility.
Later that night, SpaceX fired the privately designed rocket again for a limited period.
It was the first time a Raptor vacuum engine fitted on a Starship rocket was fired. The vacuum variant of the methane-fueled Raptor engine includes a bigger nozzle to boost performance in the airless conditions of space. Three vacuum-rated Raptor engines will power orbital-class Starship voyages. Three sea level Raptor versions with smaller nozzles will be employed for vertical Starship landings after returning from orbit.
The Starship will be launched on top of the Super Heavy, a massive reusable first stage booster. The whole stack is made of stainless steel and reaches 394 feet tall, making it taller than any rocket ever built. The Super Heavy, powered by up to 33 Raptor engines, will send the Starship into orbit with double 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 technicians in South Texas temporarily mounted the complete Starship rocket on a launch platform for a fit check and picture opportunity.
At the time, SpaceX linked 29 Raptor engines to the Super Heavy, four fewer than the launcher will require on an operational flight, and moved the booster to the ever-expanding launch complex, just east of the company’s manufacturing site.
Following the fit check, SpaceX withdrew the Raptor engines from the Super Heavy, dubbed Booster 4, as the company focused on prepping Ship 20 for cryogenic proof testing in September. SpaceX then prepared Starship for its first static fire tests this week. More test-firings may take place before Ship 20 is re-attached to the Super Heavy rocket.
Meanwhile, SpaceX intends to complete cryogenic proof testing on Booster 4 in the following weeks, presumably followed by a series of test-firings ending in a static fire with its full complement of Raptor engines.
The outfitting of the launch pad tower at Boca Chica has also continued since its initial construction throughout the summer. Crews placed enormous arms, dubbed chopsticks, onto the launch tower that SpaceX plans to deploy to snag descending Super Heavy rockets earlier this week.
Although SpaceX has made significant progress at Boca Chica, the odds of the Super Heavy and Starship spacecraft being ready for takeoff next month remain dubious. Musk sometimes sets lofty timetables, and in September 2019 stated that he hoped to try the first orbital launch with Starship within six months.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the environmental consequences of SpaceX’s activities in South Texas, might also cause a delay in the timeline. After consulting with several federal and state authorities, the FAA produced a draught environmental study last month.
The draught study is a re-evaluation of the FAA’s initial environmental impact statement, which was prepared before SpaceX began work on the Boca Chica site in 2014.