Musk “Highly Confident” Starship Will Reach Orbit This Year

Musk “Highly Confident” Starship Will Reach Orbit This Year

Standing in front of one of his enormous Starship/Super Heavy rockets at SpaceX’s Starbase test facility in southeastern Texas, Elon Musk said tonight he is “highly confident” Starship will reach orbit this year. He offered few specifics in what was billed as an update, but remained ebullient about the prospects for his completely reusable rocket system to transform space transportation and enable humanity to become a multiplanetary species.

SpaceX’s Starship stacked at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, February 10, 2022. Tweet from @elonmusk

In preparation for today’s event, SpaceX stacked a Starship/Super Heavy combo to serve as a backdrop under the watchful eyes of space enthusiasts and reporters who tweeted stills and videos of the pieces coming together on the flat, open terrain at Boca Chica, TX.

The two-stage space transportation system consists of a first-stage rocket called Super Heavy, and a second-stage that is both a rocket and the crew or cargo compartment called Starship. Confusingly, the combination is also referred to as Starship. Both stages are reusable, but the second stage returns from orbit and therefore is covered in black heat-resistant tiles to survive reentry. All together, it is 120 meters (394 feet tall) and 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter.

SpaceX conducted five tests of the Starship second stage between December 2020 and May 2021, succeeding on the fifth try. Super Heavy has not flown yet.

At the moment, SpaceX is waiting for regulatory approval from the FAA to launch to orbit from Boca Chica. The agency is conducting a programmatic environmental assessment and currently plans to release the final version on February 28, 2022, but that date has slipped before and could again. More than 18,000 public comments were received on the draft.

Tonight Musk said that he does not have much insight into the FAA’s proceedings, but “we have a rough indication that there may be an approval in March.”

Elon Musk addressing a crowd at his Starbase facility in Boca Chica, TX, February 10, 2022. Screengrab.

If the FAA does not approve launches from Boca Chica, he said they already have approval to launch from Kennedy Space Center. They still need to build a launch tower there, however, which he said would take 6-8 months.

The other critical factor is when the rocket will be ready. Musk has spoken openly over the past several months of the challenges in building the Raptor engines that power both stages. The first stage for this version needs 29 engines (future versions will have 33) and the second stage requires another six. He said they expect to be able to produce one engine per day, but “the only remaining issue that we’re aware of is melting the chamber. That thing really wants to melt. It’s a gigawatt amount of heat.”  The situation is “looking positive,” though.

Overall there was little in terms of specifics and some of his timeframes seem contradictory. Having said he thought he might get FAA approval in March, he later said they are “tracking to have regulatory approval and hardware readiness around the same time, basically a couple of months for both,” which would be later than March.  At another point he said “I feel at this point highly confident that we’ll get to orbit this year.”

NASA chose Starship as the Human Landing System for the first crew to return to the lunar surface, currently planned for 2025. Musk said SpaceX was “incredibly honored” to be chosen and “we’ll get it done.” Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa already has purchased a flight around the Moon — not to land — before that. The deal was announced in 2018 with a launch date of 2023. Musk did not indicate if that is still the plan or not. (Maezawa just visited the International Space Station on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.)

The event was more a reiteration of Musk’s belief in the need for humanity to become a multiplanetary species and fully reusable rockets like Starship to make that a reality, accompanied by several new glitzy videos.

His closing words were: “Let’s go like hell to have an exciting future.”

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