SpaceX’s giant rocket to Mars and beyond could take its first orbital flight soon — but questions around where it will fly have caused delays in the company’s planning applications.
The fully-reusable ship could be the key to achieving CEO Elon Musk’s dream of a city on Mars, but it will depend on how it performs in upcoming tests. A flight to orbit, previously expected to take place in 2021, could now take place as early as May, Musk declared on Twitter in March.
But Musk’s comments around the flight led to issues this week, as The Verge reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed an application to expand the company’s Starbase launch facility in Texas. Part of the issue is that Musk publicly stated that the first orbital flight could take place in Cape Canaveral, Florida, rather than Starbase.
That information seemed to contradict the company’s application for expansion. An October 2021 analysis filed to support the expansion suggested the Starship could not launch from Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX will now have to provide the requested information and provide clarification before it can continue its planned expansion to Starbase. The expansion would see the facility offer two orbital launchpads, two suborbital launchpads, and a landing pad.
First unveiled in 2017 under the name “BFR,” the Starship is a fully reusable vessel designed to send over 100 tons or 100 people into space at a time. It can replace the firm’s existing rockets like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, while also taking on more ambitious goals like sending humans to Mars and beyond.
SpaceX is not waiting around to start these missions. The firm is aiming to send the first humans to Mars by the mid-2020s, before establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars as early as 2050.
It could all start with the Starship — and at around 400 feet when paired with the Super Heavy booster that lifts it away from the Earth, this thing is huge. It greatly eclipses the Falcon 9, which measured less than 230 feet tall. It’s also powerful, with lift-off thrust of 16 million pounds.
If successful, it will become the tallest and most powerful rocket ever. For comparison, the current record holder on both counts is NASA’s Saturn V, which measured 363 feet tall and offered 7.6 million pounds of thrust at launch.
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SpaceX Starship orbital flight: what is the plan?
In May 2021, a document from the Federal Communications Commission revealed the plan for the first flight.
The ship will take off from the firm’s Starbase, Texas, launch facility. SpaceX has gradually developed the facility, located in Boca Chica, to make it into a fully-fledged spaceport — including a tiki bar.
Around two minutes after liftoff, at 171 seconds, the Super Heavy booster will separate from the Starship. The ship will continue to complete a targeted landing around 60 miles northwest of the coast of Hawaii. The whole flight will last around 90 minutes.
SpaceX will not land the booster or the ship on land. The booster will land in the Gulf of Mexico, around 20 miles offshore, at 495 seconds or eight minutes after launch. The ship will complete a targeted powered landing in the sea.
At a February 2022 event, Musk also suggested the company could fly the ship from Cape Canaveral in Florida instead, where the company has already received clearance to fly. Musk would consider flying out of Cape Canaveral if the flight is delayed by four to eight months at Starbase.
Cape Canaveral has served SpaceX well. It has launched 83 missions from Space Launch Complex 40, and 35 missions from Launch Complex 39A. The latter pad, which sent humans to the Moon back in 1969, would likely host the orbital flight if SpaceX can’t receive permissions for Starbase.
This plan appeared to cause issues for SpaceX in early April, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the company’s application to expand Starbase. The application ruled out the possibility of launching Starship from Cape Canaveral, as part of its No Action Alternative where SpaceX must suggest an alternative plan.
Musk’s comments around Cape Canaveral suggest that Florida could act as a suitable alternative. That would mean conducting a larger analysis around these plans. SpaceX now has to provide the requested missing information to continue its planning application.
SpaceX Starship: when is the orbital flight?
It’s unclear, but the latest word from Musk as of March 21 is that the flight could take place in May.
At the company’s February 2022 event, Musk declared that SpaceX will finish the ship around the same time as the Federal Aviation Administration completes its mandatory environmental assessment.
Of course, it’s entirely possible SpaceX misses these deadlines. In September 2019, Musk suggested an orbital flight could take place in a matter of months.
The firm’s application to the FCC requested a launch window of June to December 2021 — a window that has passed completely.
In August 2021, Musk suggested on Twitter that the flight was just around the corner:
“First orbital stack of Starship should be ready for flight in a few weeks, pending only regulatory approval”
In June 2021, company president Gwynne Shotwell claimed the firm was “shooting for July” for its first orbital flight. Shotwell told the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference that "I'm hoping we make it, but we all know that this is difficult."
That month, CNN also reported that the firm had yet to receive clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration for the flight. The firm has faced off with the organization ahead of the flight, most recently over a launch tower that the organization claims does not have government approval.
On June 29, 2021, Musk claimed at the Mobile World Congress that "we are going to do our best to do an orbital [Starship] launch attempt in the next few months."
Musk later followed up on Twitter:
“There is the internal goal if things go right, which needs to be aggressive. Obviously, some things will not go right internally & there will be external issues too. That said, I think we can stack an orbital ship on an orbital booster in July.”
In August 2021, SpaceX successfully stacked the Starship ship on top of the Super Heavy booster in preparation for the orbital flight.
Underneath the ship is the launch platform. This giant ring-shaped structure is used to support the ship during the upcoming launch.
SpaceX Starship orbital flight: which ship will it use?
NASASpaceflight reporter Chris Bergin reported in March that the flight would use the SN20 ship. The firm would send Starship to orbit using a prototype Super Heavy booster dubbed Booster 4. Its predecessor, Booster 3, will be used for ground tests ahead of the launch.
However, on March 21, Musk confirmed that the orbital flight would now use a new ship and booster. It is unclear what SpaceX plans to name the new ship and booster.
Musk did note, however, that the first orbital flight would use the Raptor 2 engine. Musk explained that the new engines are “much more capable and reliable.”
The company reached a production rate of five Raptor 2 engines per week in February, and aims to reach seven in this month. It plans to complete the necessary 39 flight-worthy engines by next month.
This version of the company’s new engine will offer around half a million pounds of thrust at sea level. As the booster is expected to use 33 Raptor engines, the Starship’s booster will offer a total sea-level thrust of around 16 million pounds.
SpaceX Starship orbital flight: how did we get here?
- November 2018 — BFR, first announced in September 2017, gets renamed to Starship.
- December 2018 — Musk confirms the new ship has switched to stainless steel.
- January 2019 — Shortened “Starhopper” prototype unveiled and Musk explains the switch to steel.
- February 2019 — Raptor engine beats a long-standing rocket record.
- April 2019 — Starhopper completes a tethered “hop.”
- July 2019 — Starhopper launches 20 meters (67 feet).
- August 2019 — Starhopper launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- September 2019 — Starship Mk.1 full-size prototype unveiled.
- May 2020 — Starship SN4 full-size prototype completes a static test fire.
- August 2020 — SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- October 2020 — SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire.
- December 2020 — SN8 launches 12.5 kilometers (41,000 feet) and crashes into the ground.
- February 2021 — SN9 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and crashes into the ground.
- March 2021 — SN10 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet), lands, and explodes eight minutes later. That same month, SN11 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and hits the ground in several pieces.
- May 2021 — SN15 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and lands without a hitch, except for a small fire at the base.
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