SEATTLE — SpaceX and its chief executive, Elon Musk, say the first orbital launch attempt of its Starship vehicle is approaching, but the company must first overcome technical and regulatory hurdles.
SpaceX tweeted On January 12, he went ahead with a final round of testing of his Starship vehicle and Super Heavy booster at his Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company installed a Starship vehicle called Ship 24 on top of a Super Heavy booster designated Booster 7 on the launch pad on January 9.
These tests, the company said, include a “full-stack” dress rehearsal of the combined vehicle. This would be followed by a static firing test of all 33 Raptor engines on Booster 7, the first time all of these engines fired simultaneously.
These tests would pave the way for an orbital launch attempt from a technical point of view. SpaceX hasn’t estimated when that launch might happen outside of “coming weeks.”
Musk, however, has been more forthcoming. “We have a real hit at the end of February. The March launch attempt seems highly likely,” he said. tweeted January 7, responding to someone who quoted a South Texas publication as saying the launch was slated for late January.
However, SpaceX has missed several past estimates, both by Musk and others, regarding the timing of Starship’s first orbital launch. At an event in February 2022, with a fully stacked spacecraft as the backdrop, Musk estimated the vehicle would be ready to fly in “a few months.”
At an advisory board meeting in late October, a NASA official said he expected Starship to be ready for launch as soon as early December, after completing a wet dress rehearsal of the full vehicle and a test static firing of 33 thruster motors. NASA is closely monitoring Starship’s progress as it plans to use a version of the vehicle as a lunar lander for Artemis missions. SpaceX received two NASA awards worth more than $4 billion combined to develop these landers.
It’s unclear why SpaceX missed both Musk’s February forecast or NASA’s more recent estimate. The company suffered a notable testing setback in July when thrusters under a Super Heavy thruster ignited during a test, damaging the thruster.
In addition to major technical milestones, SpaceX also requires a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration for an orbital Starship launch. The FAA completed an environmental review in June, allowing Starship orbital launches from Boca Chica but requiring the company to implement more than 75 measures to mitigate environmental effects.
Neither SpaceX nor the FAA provided updates on the progress of implementing these mitigations or the status of a Starship launch license. However, the FAA, in a statement to SpaceNews on Jan. 12, said not all measurements need to be completed before issuing a launch license.
“The timeframe for SpaceX to implement the more than 75 environmental mitigation measures required by the FAA for its Starship/Super Heavy program varies,” the agency said. “For example, some measurements must be performed before launch while others are designed to occur during post-launch activities or following an accident. The FAA will ensure that SpaceX adheres to all required mitigations.