Starship Another Step Closer to Launch After Successful Engine Test

Starship Another Step Closer to Launch After Successful Engine Test

SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket is another step closer to launch today after a static fire test of its 33 first stage engines. In the end, only 31 fired, but company founder and CEO Elon Musk optimistically said that is still enough to reach orbit. The first orbital launch could take place as soon as next month.

Starship is a two-stage rocket. The first stage, Super Heavy, has 33 engines fueled by methane and Liquid Oxygen, or methalox. The second stage has six methalox engines. The second stage alone, and the combined first and second stages, are both called Starship. Together they stand 120 meters (395 feet) tall with a diameter of 9 meters (30 feet).

Comparison of SpaceX’s Starship with other “super heavy” rockets presented by Wayne Hale, Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, at the January 17, 2023 NAC meeting.  SLS Block I is the rocket NASA just launched for the Artemis I mission. N1 was a Soviet rocket in the late 1960s and early 1970s that never flew successfully. Saturn V was the U.S. rocket used for the Apollo program. SLS Block 2 Cargo is a larger version of NASA’s SLS planned for the future. 

SpaceX conducted a Wet Dress Rehearsal of both stages on January 24, filling them with propellant and practicing a countdown to a point just prior to engine start. Then they removed the second stage, leaving Super Heavy alone on the launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas for today’s test. It was brief — about 5 seconds — but impressive with 31 Raptor engines firing in unison, the most ever used on a rocket.

Musk tweeted that one of the 33 engines was turned off before the test began and another stopped itself.

Musk and other SpaceX officials have been saying that the first orbital launch attempt could take place as soon as next month. Musk’s comment that 31 engines are enough to reach orbit suggests he’s satisfied with the results today.  If that assessment holds and another test isn’t required, the only thing they need now is a launch license from the FAA.

Starship is behind schedule. The second stage has flown five times to an altitude of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), but only once successfully, in May 2021, and no further launches have taken place since even though in November 2021 Musk forecast he would fly Starship a dozen times in 2022.

A lot of hopes and dreams are riding on Starship.

SpaceX photo of Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, with Starship/Super Heavy on the launch pad.

SpaceX sees it not only as a profit-maker launching its own 2nd-generation Starlink satellites and payloads for many other customers, but as the transportation system for Musk’s vision of making humanity a multiplanetary species with millions of people living on Mars.

Starship also is key to NASA’s goal of returning humans to the lunar surface. In 2021, the agency selected Starship as the Human Landing System (HLS) to put the first astronauts back on the Moon in 2025 on the Artemis III mission.  NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft will get the crew from Earth to lunar orbit where they will transfer into Starship for the trip down to and back from the surface. It’s the first of what are expected to be many such trips. NASA and SpaceX already have a second contract for Artemis IV.

But NASA’s astronauts won’t be the first to fly on Starship. American billionaire Jared Isaacman bought the first Starship human spaceflight to Earth orbit and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa purchased the first Starship flight to the Moon. He and his companions will fly around the Moon, not land.

Unlike NASA’s Space Launch System that can go directly to lunar orbit, Starship has to stop and refuel in Earth orbit. Before Maezawa or anyone flies Starship to the Moon, SpaceX needs to build a fuel depot in Earth orbit, fill it up (which will require a number of Starship launches), and demonstrate the ability to transfer cyrogenic propellants from one vehicle to another in microgravity.

The point is there’s a lot of work to do before Starship starts taking people anywhere, but today’s test was a significant milestone in getting it ready to launch satellites like Starlink and those launches will build confidence in its ability to safely transport humans.

Speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference today in Washington, D.C., SpaceX’s Nick Cummings connected those dots. “I think we should all think about those [Starlink missions] as Artemis launches” because “what we’re doing is developing the reliability and reusability that we need to support the HLS mission and more broadly the sustainable expansion of humanity to the Moon and then Mars.”

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